- Historic Sites
THE TALLEST TOWN IN AMERICA GROWS TALLER STILL WHEN VIEWED THROUGH THE LENS OF ITS REMARKABLE PAST
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
They moved our house to mine the earth it sat upon. They didn’t move just our house but the entire town of Climax, Colorado. By the end of 1962 more than 205 homes had come down the thirteen-mile stretch of Highway 91 to the town of Leadville. Moving back to Leadville returned my father to his roots; he is the third generation of Fitzsimmonses to live there, and I am part of the fourth. Fitzsimmonses have been in Leadville since it was a bustling and refined mining town—or at least as refined as a mining town could be.
More than a century after its fame, Leadville reveals through exuberant storefronts and tall mine headframes the spirit of the people who built it. Follow Highway 91 south roughly twenty-five miles from Interstate 70 and the Copper Mountain Ski Resort, and you will meet Leadville, full of superb scenery and history. About halfway there you’ll pass the Climax Molybdenum Mine. Here at the top of Fremont Pass was once a town, with post office, ski area, bowling alley, shopping center, schools, and movie theater. Climax, named after a narrow-gauge railroad station that first occupied the site, is now but a shadow of the immense center it once was, just as Leadville is an echo of the extraordinary city of its past.
DURING THE BOOM, LEADVILLE'S POPULATION WAS JUST A FEW THOUSAND SHY OF DENVER’S.
Set in the upper Arkansas River Valley in nearly the middle of Colorado, Leadville has a robust elevation of 10,200 feet, making it the highest incorporated city in the United States. On each side regal mountain ranges offer constantly changing views. To the east stands the Mosquito Range; to the west, the Sawatch, home to the two highest peaks in the state. Mount Elbert measures 14,433 feet and Mount Massive, 14,421.
Leadville’s story, as with all mining towns, begins with geology. The mineralization around the city, created by rich hydrothermal solutions seeping into local geologic faults, is diverse—ranging from gold and silver to zinc and iron. More noticeable to the traveler than the geology, though, is Leadville’s weather. Winter comes in to stay by mid-October, but only after the explosion of aspen color and wildlife activity that is autumn; by the time May puts an end to the season, more than two hundred inches of snow will have fallen on Leadville. Yet we rarely endure more than four days without seeing the sun, and usually the snow-covered mountains accentuate an azure sky.
When gold was discovered in 1858 along the banks of Cherry Creek, near modern-day Denver, hopeful souls thronged to Colorado, seeking to repeat the California rush of 1849. In April of 1860, near the end of a long winter, Abe Lee and his companions crossed the snowy Mosquito Range, entering into the upper Arkansas River Valley, and prospected in the gulches upstream. It was Lee who discovered gold at the top of the Arkansas River Valley. Legend credits him with poetics at his first sight of color. When the gold winks up at him from his pan, he says: “Boys, I have all of Californee right here in my hands!” The site was christened California Gulch.
It stretches for seven miles to the south of present-day Leadville. In spite of the waist-deep snow and ice-covered creeks, four thousand prospectors were working it within three months of Lee’s discovery, ten thousand by the time summer came. During the next five years California Gulch earned more than five million dollars—in 1865 prices. (There are still locals who pan these streams, disputing the notion that the gulch was played out by the late 1860s.)
But that gold was vexingly hard to separate by gravity because of heavy black sand that clogged the sluice boxes. In 1875 two men sent a sample of this sand to be tested for mineral content; they learned that it was 40 percent lead and contained up to forty ounces of silver per ton. It was clear that silver, not placer gold, would make these men rich and that “hard-rock mining,” using drilling and blasting, would be the only way to get it in this area. By 1877 the silver rush was on.
Home to three thousand people in 1878, the town was officially titled Leadville in honor of the secondary metal in which the silver was found. Incorporated the following year, the city grew strong on silver; its nicknames, the Magic City and Silver City, suggest its extraordinary mineral production. Chestnut Street hummed while supplying miners with the tools for prospecting as well as the opportunities to spend their money. The first city directory, of 1879, declared: “The city of Leadville is one of the marvels of the present age. Two years ago it had no existence, while today it has long streets and broad avenues many miles in extent, with large and handsome buildings on every side. Recently as August 1877 only six rude log cabins were to be found, where to-day well designed edifices can be counted by the thousand.”