- 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
Mining camps were culturally diverse, and Leadville was no exception. Beyond the city limits of Leadville, different ethnic towns developed. The Cornish, for example, lived in Jacktown near the smelters where they applied smelting talents learned in England. (Jacktown now is but a huddle of weathered buildings with rusted metal roofs.) Up East Fifth Street, the remnants of Finntown rest among enormous mine waste dumps.
THE ICE PALACE WAS AN IMAGINATIVE RESPONSE TO THE END OF THE SILVER BOOM.
Leadville’s boom continued until 1893, which brought the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, stopping the government’s mandated support of the silver market and thus dropping silver prices drastically. The dominion of the Silver Kings toppled, while Leadville’s residents struggled to find creative ways of surviving. One such effort was the construction of the Leadville Ice Palace.
Built on top of the hill between West Ninth and West Seventh Streets, the Ice Palace covered more than three acres. Wooden framing supported the gleaming structure, whose entrance was flanked by ninety-foot towers of individual ice blocks three to five feet thick. The ice was cut from nearby ponds and lakes; when they gave out, more ice was shipped in by rail. A writer for the Salt Lake Democrat described the interior: “The main chamber of the palace is a skating rink covered by 15,000 square feet of solid ice. On the east is a ballroom and on the west a café, all brilliantly lighted by half a hundred arc lights, producing all the colors of the rainbow.” The Ice Palace opened on January 1, 1896. The Salt Lake Democrat proclaimed: “The effect is of massive architectural beauty, it being of the old Norman school. . . . At the front guarding the main entrance is a massive female figure, representing the glorification of Leadville.”
In late spring the Ice Palace melted into a kind of immortality. The timbers that framed it now support many of the houses on West Seventh and Eighth Streets, including my grandparents'. I live in that house now, and the shed in my back yard was once the ticket booth to the Ice Palace. A square window about five feet above the ground originally held a small door through which the tickets were sold; the slant roof, made to shrug off the winter snow, still caps straight and sturdy walls.
Through the 1920s Leadville’s mines kept producing, and that decade revealed a coming boon. Leadville’s riches, which had rested upon gold and silver, would now come from molybdenum. This mineral is used as an alloy with steel to make it more durable, and wartime demands for tough metal increased production at the Climax Molybdenum Mine. Surrounded by three thousand feet of barbedwire-topped chain-link fencing and protected by armed and uniformed guards, Climax became one of the most prized assets of the United States during the Second World War. By 1957 it was the largest underground mine in the world.
Leadville prospered with Climax, a company town built to keep the transient employees at the mine. Starting in 1960, Climax began its move down to Leadville. My parents were able to buy and move their multi-room house to an extra-sized lot and dig and install a foundation for only ten thousand dollars. The nine children in our family, of whom I am the youngest and the only girl, played with the other children of the neighborhood in what now seem ideal years.
The tale of the Climax Molybdenum Company, which deserves its own treatment altogether, continued optimistically through the 1970s. While other mining towns had withered away early in the century, Leadville took pride in remaining a working one. But this pride was precarious, for it depended not only upon one mineral but also upon one mine. In 1982, when falling moly prices shut down the Climax, Leadville-area mine employment fell from thirty-four hundred to four hundred. And last spring, when ASARCO’s Black Cloud Mine said it was closing, some heard in the announcement the final bell tolling for the city.
But Leadville has always been resilient, and today it is shifting to an economic base of historical tourism and wilderness recreation. The town’s poet laureate, Frank E. Vaughn, titled the last verse in The Spirit of Leadville “A Vision,” and though published in 1928, his words speak to Leadville now as it looks to the turn of its next century: