(Katie here) With temperatures here in the valley this past Friday over 1000, it seemed like a good time to venture up into the high Rockies on a trip sponsored by the Museum of Western Colorado. It was a fascinating glimpse into the history of the town of Leadville, site of various mining operations over the past 150 years or so, and some sites of interest in the surrounding area as well. Leadville is located just east of the continental divide at an elevation of 10,200 feet. As such, it is the highest city in the U.S. Our tour guide, Peter Booth, is the executive director of the museum and a knowledgeable historian which made for quite an informative trip.
Our first scheduled stop was at Camp Hale. This camp was built near the beginning of World War II and was the training area for the 10th Mountain Division. At its height, it was home to over 14,000 soldiers training in mountain warfare including mastering winter survival and combat on skis. For the history buffs out there, Senator Bob Dole was a member of the 10th Mountain Division and would have trained here. The only structure left partially standing is what remains of the large social hall where movies were shown and other major gatherings were held.
As we approached Leadville, we got our first glimpse of the still-snow-covered Mt. Massive. At 14,421 feet, it is the second tallest peak in Colorado.
It sits next to the tallest peak, Mt. Elbert at 14,433 feet. Frankly, I think Mt. Massive is more impressive.
Our first stop in Leadville was the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. The area saw its first settlers around 1860 following the Pikes Peak gold rush when small amounts of gold were found in a valley a few miles from present day Leadville. It was soon discovered that silver was more prevalent than gold, and prospectors arrived by the thousands. The town of Leadville was founded in 1877, and by 1880 the population hovered between 30,000 and 40,000 – the second largest city in Colorado at the time. Although the silver mines were quite prolific, in 1893 the repeal of Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed; and the value of silver plummeted. Many of the mines in the area continued to produce gold, lead, and zinc; and it was soon discovered the mines in the area were rich in a mineral called molybdenum. This mineral was used as an additive to steel to make the steel stronger. Mining of the molybdenum occurred primarily at the Climax Mine and continued until the 1980’s.
A few glimpses from inside the Museum:
This amethyst geode measures about three feet across.
So what does one do in their spare time in Leadville during the long, cold winters??? Create models of castles out of the crystals from various mines, I suppose.
The exhibit, naturally, includes some old mining equipment
And samples of gold
Our next stop was the Leadville National Fish Hatchery where we first enjoyed a grand picnic lunch next to this beautiful mountain lake.
The fish hatchery was founded to provide healthy trout for re-stocking streams throughout the Rocky Mountain area. Inside are tanks holding hatchlings of varying sizes.
A pond in front of the hatchery holds a few FULL-size trout such as this one which appeared to be between two and three feet in length.
Following our tour of the hatchery, we were toured the Matchless Mine. This mine, owned by Horace A.W. Tabor produced a very healthy stream of silver and made the Tabors millionaires prior to the Sherman Act of 1893. Alas, with the downturn in the silver market, the Tabors died paupers.
Brenda, our tour guide, was quite the character. We estimated her age to be somewhere in her seventies. Beginning in the 1960’s, she worked as a blaster (a very unusual career choice for a woman at that time) for the Climax Mine, the area’s primary producer of molybdenum.
One of the main shafts into the mine, Shaft # 6, has been partially restored. The second picture is a view down the shaft where the miners were lowered to work their day-long shifts.
The bucket shown below was suspended from a hoist. At the beginning of the shift, men climbed into the bucket and were lowered into the mine down the shaft. After all the miners had been lowered, it was used throughout the day to haul up the ore which was dumped into ore carts to be transported to the rail siding where it was hauled into town for assaying.
Of course no good story is complete without a little scandal. Two of the most notorious characters in Leadville were Horace A.W. Tabor, owner of the Matchless Mine and his mistress-turned second wife, Baby Doe. Tabor began in Leadville by selling mining supplies and basic necessities of life to the miners. When miners were unable to pay, he would advance them the supplies in exchange for a share of any profits they might make – a practice known as grub-staking. His initial wealth came from grub-staking the claim of two miners who eventually struck it rich. Subsequently, although married, he took up with Baby Doe, a woman reputed to be the most attractive woman in town who was herself married. After they each divorced their spouses, they married and became part of Washington, D.C. society following Horace’s appointment as a senator. Alas, their golden period would end with the crash of the silver market in 1893. Following Horace’s death in 1899, the mine was sold, and Baby Doe now destitute was allowed to live in a tiny cabin on the property until her death in 1935. The original cabin has been maintained and is included in the tour.
Following the mine tour, we got to spend time in downtown Leadville. Many of the structures built at the height of the silver period still stand, with several having been artfully restored. Harrison Avenue, the main drag:
The Delaware Hotel, pictured below, has been fully restored with shops on the main floor and a fully functioning hotel in the upper stories.
The lobby of the hotel has been tastefully redecorated keeping many features of the original lobby
Including these bison, elk, and moose heads
The Tabor hotel, built by the notorious Horace Tabor has also been restored with retail shops at street level and apartments on the upper levels. I think it is quite the impressive building.
Several of the original churches remain as well. The Presbyterian Church, built in 1889, is simply called “The Old Church” by the locals
Perhaps the most famous of the churches, The Annunciation Church, sits a block east of Harrison Avenue. Built in 1879, the steeple is a landmark seen in many old photos of the town. It was the site of the marriage of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” in 1886 and later the funeral for Baby Doe Tabor in 1935.
So, our dear readers, I hope you have enjoyed our little trip through a bit of Colorado history.