- 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
Refinement came quickly to this rough mining camp. On December 15, 1879, the Edison lines of Tabor’s telephone exchange connected the Magic City to Denver. My great-grandfather Charles Fitzsimmons I worked as a station manager for Tabor’s telephone company. Part of his compensation was a family apartment on the top floor of the Tabor Opera House, then owned by Tabor, rooms that have served a variety of purposes since.
It was said that Leadville’s streets were “paved with silver” because they were covered with the black, heavy remnants from the silver-smelting process. This “slag” cut down on the mud created during each spring runoff. Some of the alleys of Leadville—one of the more entertaining ways to walk around town—still show the black slag covering, and along the highway south of town monstrous piles of the stuff mark the remains of smelters. Gas lighting, installed in the fall of 1879, gave the Tabor Opera House and the streets of Leadville a soft glow, and the next year the arrival of the railroad connected the city to the nation. Not every visitor admired such improvements. As one 1879 writer stated, “Mining camps in the nature of things, grow to towns and cities, as boys grow to men; but there are those humans who we declare to be not men, but overgrown boys, so is Leadville not a city, nor a town, nor a village, but an overgrown mining camp.”
Nevertheless, Leadville society in the 1880s impressed most critics. Seven newspapers competed to convey the most recent news and the fashions worn by the ladies of Leadville society. Annual balls, dinners, and engagements demanded dresses that would have passed muster in New York City. Even the graves in Evergreen Cemetery reflect Victorian lavishness with ornate wrought-iron fences and elaborately carved headstones. The cemetery, on the northwest corner of town, is a favorite place to walk at dusk. When he was a child, it was a place of youthful dares for my father, who spent tense hours playing among the mausoleum and collapsed graves.
The large Victorian homes were built to host the gatherings of the 1880s high society, reflecting Eastern notions of refinement and beauty. Many have been converted into charming bed-and-breakfasts.
HUNDREDS OF MILES OF UNDERGROUND TUNNELS RUN UNSEEN THROUGH THE MINING DISTRICT.
Still, Leadville at its height was bittersweet. Its splendid downtown buildings were built at a price. This price was paid by residents who did not walk on streets paved with silver but on streets blasted through it. They were the hard-rock miners, the men who risked and often lost their lives for the ore. Though they are the reason Leadville ever existed at all, theirs was a transient life, and these miners did not live here long enough to leave progeny in the town. The only reason my family has been in Leadville for generations is that my ancestors never set foot in a mine.
Though not apparent to the visitor, hundreds of miles of underground mine workings run through the Leadville Mining District like arteries. My uncle Charles Fitzsimmons III recalls how the east side of Leadville in the 1930s was devoid of trees, exposing the barren landscape of the miner with its yellowish orange mine waste dumps and supportive timbering. By candlelight the hard-rock miner spent hours hand-drilling holes for the explosive black powder. After the smoke from the blast had cleared, he shoveled the debris into a cart to be carried to the surface for processing.
Even had this operation been performed in daylight and clean air, it would have been arduous. As it was, crushing of hands, accidental explosions, and lethal cave-ins were not unusual in those dimly lit caverns. Newspaper headlines reading EXPLOSION: ANOTHER PREMATURE EXPLOSION OF POWDER CARTRIDGES OF 80 FEET WAS THE DISTANCE MINER FELL FROM LIFE TO DEATH were all too common. Each August, Leadville hosts a Boom Days celebration in which the city’s past is revisited. Drilling contests are held among members of a dying breed of underground miners, pack-burro races travel over Mosquito Pass, and costume contests bring out the best of modern “Victorian” society.
Four thousand men worked as miners in the caverns of Leadville in 1880, earning roughly three dollars for each ten- or twelve-hour shift. Not surprisingly, miners often supplemented their wages by high-grading ore—that is, by stealing gold nuggets or other valuable pieces. My grandfather Charlie Fitzsimmons II was an accountant for several brothers who gave him high-graded gold nuggets in return for his services. He met the Pudnick brothers at the Silver Dollar Saloon, a bar that you can still visit. The Pudnicks, like most miners, moved on and away from memory long ago, but their nuggets remain. These nuggets are given away to good friends and family in a fashion created by my grandfather: the Leadville Cocktail. Not wanting to benefit from high-graded nuggets, he would fix a drink for an honored guest and drop one into the bottom of the glass. I wear my nugget in a locket around my neck. Marriages, births, or even the passing of kidney stones are all occasion enough for lifting a Leadville Cocktail. My mother, upon arriving at Leadville for the first time in 1956 to meet her new in-laws, thought the nugget in her champagne glass was a lump of dirt. She nearly swallowed the nugget whole before my father stopped her.