Tony Vagneur: Leadville and Aspen are sisters who are the same but very different
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, was Aspen’s first sister city. With global outreach in mind, the Sister Cities program is unique in sharing ideas and cultures through international exchange of students and citizens. That’s where Garmisch Street (east of Paepcke Park) came from, Garmisch replacing Center Street.
Closer to home, there is a true sister city, one of blood, not one adopted in later years as a “sister city.” Leadville is not a sweet-sounding name, nor is there any apparent enticement to it, but being only 40 miles away over the mountains, Leadville is the closest surviving silver mining sibling we have.
Her origins go back to 1859, when gold was discovered at California Gulch, just outside of present-day Leadville, located in the Mosquito range. A great little town named Oro City sprang up, and over the next five years, about $3 million in gold was extracted from the area. In case you were wondering, ‘oro’ is Spanish for gold.
Gold didn’t last forever and Oro City (not to be confused with Oro Fino, an 1860s gold camp in Idaho) was on the dying side of becoming deserted when some enterprising miners, tired of wrestling with an inordinate amount of blackish sand in the placer gold works, followed the sand to its source, where it was soon determined that they were in silver deposit country. The silver rush was on, bigger than anything Colorado had before seen and miners, suffering from the recession of 1857 flocked to Denver and the Leadville area in huge numbers.
Slabtown, located below Oro City, became the forefather of Leadville, which was officially christened in 1877. (At 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the U.S.) Silver was suddenly king and the rush was on.
In 1879, according to The Leadville Daily/Evening Chronicle, as quoted in a chapter of “Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the American West,” Leadville had “19 hotels, 41 lodging houses, 82 drinking saloons, 38 restaurants, 13 wholesale liquor houses, 147 lawyers, 12 blacksmith shops, 6 livery stables, 3 undertakers, 21 gambling houses, 4 theatres, 4 dance halls, and 35 houses of prostitution.” Nicknamed Cloud City, Leadville in the 1880s had a population of around 50,000 souls — only about 2,600 today.
Leadville was closer to Denver than Aspen, but getting there was no easy piece of cake. Tidbits from The Leadville Daily/Evening Chronicle reveal that mules and freight wagons were the most economical way to get provisions into (and ore out of) the Leadville mining district.
April 3, 1879: “A new train of ten wagons left Pueblo the other day to freight between that city and Leadville,” or: “A new freight train of ten wagons, with six mules to each, is now making its first trip to Leadville, having loaded at Denver about a week since.”
Speaking of trains, more specifically railroads, both the Denver & Rio Grande and the Denver, South Park and Pacific railroads arrived in Leadville in 1880. The Colorado Midland, later to become a perennial Aspen and Basalt favorite, hit town in 1887, the first standard-gauge railroad in the area. It’s amazing to note that in the full year preceding 1880, Leadville mines managed to produce about $10 million in silver ore.
Like all the other silver mining towns, Leadville got hit hard by the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, but by the advantage of its geological location, significant gold deposits were found east of town, keeping Leadville in the game as a significant mining town until the Great Depression hit.
In the 1970s, members of the old Eagles Club in Aspen often made a Sunday pilgrimage to Leadville, just to enjoy the fellowship of Leadvillites. Only when the pass was open, of course. On occasion, the favor of a visit was returned. Most of those in either club were natives or longtime residents of the town in which they resided, giving the get-togethers a historical significance that otherwise might not have been realized and some of the stories, if believed, were significant.
Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry performed at the Tabor Opera House in the 1880s (you know about H.A.W. Tabor and his beautiful wife, Baby Doe. Rags to riches to pauper, not unlike many of those who managed to strike it rich in that long-ago mining world. Kind of like big lottery winners today.)
The town’s rugged terrain and altitude contributes to a number of challenging events and activities, such as the Leadville Trail 100 series of races, which includes the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Local Aspen boy John Callahan, 55, has competed in this race for all 25 years of its existence. Lots of 14ers in the area, too.
Leadville is different; it’s not like Aspen, other than it has a deep and fascinating history that parallels Aspen’s development in many ways. Put up at the Delaware Hotel for a couple of days and give it a shot.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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