Silver City

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It seemed inevitable that so vigorous a city would produce vigorous legends, and perhaps the most durable is that of Horace Tabor. Arriving in California Gulch days, Tabor was more of a merchant than a miner, yet through frequent grubstakes he made millions. A grubstake was financial backing for a mining venture, usually in return for a share of the mine’s profits. Tabor’s grubstake with the two men who discovered the Little Pittsburg Mine was especially lucrative; within the first week of the discovery, Tabor and his partners earned more than eight thousand dollars.

My great-grandfather Austin Blakey worked as a mine manager for Tabor’s Little Pittsburg and Chrysolite Mines. It was said that Tabor would hire only men of English origin, and Blakey, who would “ride to the hounds” whenever he had the chance, was a prime Tabor employee. Tabor bought up claims in the area surrounding the Little Pittsburg; one became the Matchless Mine. The tour of the Matchless, offered in the summer, presents a glimpse into the rugged life of the hard-rock miner. In addition, you can hear the melodramatic tale of Tabor and his personal life.

Although best known for his marriage to the young, beautiful Elizabeth (“Baby Doe”) McCourt and his divorce from his wife Augusta (in that order), Tabor was also a true benefactor to Leadville. He died an early death from appendicitis in 1899 with Baby Doe at his side. The weathered wooden hoist house, headframe, and supply cabin still stand at the Matchless Mine, where after enjoying years of Tabor’s mining fortunes, a destitute Baby Doe froze to death in 1935.

This area’s mines gave birth to several other “Silver Kings,” among them the Guggenheims and Johnny and Molly Brown, she who famously survived the Titanic . (The stately thirteen-bedroom structure on West Sixth Street that was once Meyer Guggenheim’s home has recently been handsomely renovated by its present owner.)

By 1879, at the peak of the silver boom, Leadville’s population stood above thirty thousand people, just a few thousand shy of Denver’s. The warmth of silver fever can still be felt in Leadville’s streets. If you stand at the foot of the newly restored Delaware Hotel, it is not hard to imagine the noise and commotion of 1880—the main streets filled shoulder to shoulder with miners and merchants, horses and carts, and ladies and ladies of the night. Leadville accepted prostitution along with dance halls and saloons; there were more than two hundred prostitutes in the brothels along State Street, which is now West Second Street. Behind the State Street cribs was Stillborn Alley, named after the unwanted infants born to their occupants.

 

The noise of stage wheels and saloon pianos filled air clouded by street dust and smelter smoke. One early visitor wrote: “You can possibly have no idea of the rapidity of action here. All is push and bustle. The streets are crowded and every other house is a saloon, dance house, etc. I am writing now in the shadow of seven bottles of some odoriferous substance.” Duane Smith, an authority on Western mining camps, said that Leadville “was the only camp which seemed to take real pride in its depravity.”

 

Today the main streets are quiet by ten o’clock on a weeknight, but the town’s great days continue to vibrate. You sense them in the busy facade of the Tabor Opera House, one of the most striking buildings on the south end of town. It can be toured during the summer with its owner, Evelyn Furman, as the dedicated and highly knowledgeable guide. The opera house remains much as it was during its days as a theater. Inside, the walls are thickly hung with pictures of those who visited and performed there, and the rows of wrought-iron seats make you feel that a crowd of men and women dressed in high 1880s fashion has just departed after the final curtain, leaving behind a faint tang of tobacco and perfume.

Along Chestnut Street in 1880 stood stores where nearly anything could be purchased. The 1879 city directory listed the following array of businesses: four assayers, three bakeries, five boardinghouses, two booksellers and stationers, seven boot and shoe merchants, three carpenters, three carpet dealers, eight civil and mining engineering offices, nine clothing stores, one dentist, eleven grocers, four hardware stores, eighteen law firms, five meat markets, ten physicians, twenty-five saloons, one scenic painter, one undertaker, and three theaters. A visitor noted, “We could look up its length, possibly two miles. It was a crawling mass of horses, mules, wagons, and men. It looked impossible to get through, but we made it in about two hours.”

Today Chestnut Street quietly sits at the end of town, heading west away from the main street of Harrison Avenue. Most of its original buildings, made predominantly of sawn wood, log, or even tarps, burned during a succession of fires. Now, small Victorian houses line the once-bustling street, but the original boardwalk still holds up against the snow in several places. The old Zaitz Mercantile, a blue wooden building, stands as a reminder of the families that shopped there. Along that block they could buy anything from a buggy to a hat to smoked meat to a cocktail. Many of the sometime business buildings along Chestnut are private homes; the Zaitz, however, houses antiques shops.