April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
THE TALLEST TOWN IN AMERICA GROWS TALLER STILL WHEN VIEWED THROUGH THE LENS OF ITS REMARKABLE PAST
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Four generations of my family have witnessed Leadville grow and adapt, and I think its remarkable past justifies my passion for this humble town in the midst of magnificent scenery. I very much hope you will come visit, and if you do, I think you’ll understand that passion.
Sitting in the front room of my grandparents’ house, I see the city and its encompassing mountains. It is here that my grandmother gave piano lessons and my grandfather told stories to his sons. As snow silently falls on the Victorian houses and whitens the headframes, I can hear the distant sound of piano scales and folktales.