Leadville history

Victorian home in Leadville
A Victorian home photographed in 1941 by Marion Post Wolcott for the Federal Farm Security Administration.

By John Leach

In 1860, prospectors discovered gold in California Gulch on the southeastern edge of modern-day Leadville and created the settlement of Oro City, with the gulch growing to a population of 5,000 residents. But the gold sands, which produced gold valued between $3 million and $10 million, were quickly exhausted.

The silver boom began in 1877, after metallurgist A.B. Wood discovered that the iron-stained rocks the gold miners had been pulling out of their sluices and throwing away were rich in cerussite, or lead carbonate, and recorded a high silver content.

Wood’s discovery led to silver strikes in the Iron and Carbonate hills and then on Fryer Hill. In 1877, a mining camp west of the mines was officially organized as a town, with the name Leadville chosen over Cerussite and Lead City. Horace A. W. Tabor, a shopkeeper and prospector who went on to become a politician, mine owner, and one of America’s richest men, was chosen to serve as mayor and postmaster.

Leadville, however, was a violent place. The first marshal was beaten and run out of town after just two days on the job, and the second was shot and killed by a deputy marshal after five weeks on the job. Tabor responded by hiring Mart Duggan, a legendary gunfighter, to serve as marshal, and Duggan is credited with cleaning up the town.

Tabor began amassing what became a $9 million fortune with the Little Pittsburgh mine, whose silver lodes were discovered in 1878 by German immigrants August Rische and George Hook. Tabor had provided $64 worth of provisions to the men for free, in return for a “grubstake” agreement that gave him a one-third ownership of the mine. He earned $500,000 in dividends and sold his share for $1 million within a year.

Tabor used that money to invest in other mines and buy the highly profitable Matchless Mine for $117,000. He also was duped into buying a shaft that had been mined out, then salted with silver, but was lucky enough to hit the lucrative and undeveloped Chrysolite lode deeper in the mountain. Tabor established several businesses and built the Tabor Opera House in Leadville and the Tabor Grand Opera House and Tabor Block in Denver. Tabor was elected Colorado’s lieutenant governor in 1878 and served until 1884, and he filled in for a month as a U.S. senator in 1883. But he lost three campaigns for governor.

By 1880, Leadville was one of the world’s largest silver camps with a population estimated at 15,000 to 50,000 residents, plus schools, five churches, three hospitals, an opera house, six banks and numerous businesses, along with 100 licensed saloons and a dozen gambling halls. There were 30 mines and 10 smelters operating in the area, and they produced an estimated $136 million in silver between 1879 and 1888. The area led the nation in the production of silver and lead, and Leadville’s success drew prospectors to Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley, where silver also was discovered in such quantities that it for a time in the early 1890s topped Leadville as the state’s foremost silver producer.

Leadville’s booming economy drew three railroads to the town, a feat matched only by Cripple Creek. The narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad reached Leadville on a shared track from Buena Vista in 1880. The track-sharing agreement expired in 1882, forcing the DSP&P to build a new line from Breckenridge over Fremont Pass, which was completed in 1884. The standard-gauge Colorado Midland Railroad entered Leadville in 1887.

Several notable figures made fortunes in Leadville. Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who arrived in 1879, started his fortune with the A Y and Minnie mines and went on to become the smelter king. Samuel Newhouse ran a hotel and freighting business in Leadville in the early 1880s and went on to become a copper and silver magnate in Utah. German immigrant Charles Boettcher started a hardware store in Leadville in 1879 and invested in mines, a bank, and the first electric company there before leaving for Denver to make a fortune in the sugar and cement industries and in the banking and securities business. Two Colorado governors, John Routt and Alva Adams, also made substantial sums from investments in Leadville mines.

Leadville also drew its share of famous figures.

Irish author Oscar Wilde was hosted by the Tabor Opera House during his 1883 lecture tour. Wilde described Leadville in his 1906 book “Impressions of America” as “the richest city in the world … (with) the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a revolver.” Wilde also recounted a sign over the piano in a Leadville saloon that read, “Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.”

Gunfighter, gambler and dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday moved to Leadville in 1883, two years after the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. In 1884, Holliday, weakened by tuberculosis, repeated bouts of pneumonia and gambling losses while in Leadville, borrowed $5 from Billy Allen, a former Leadville peace officer and an old adversary from Tombstone. Holliday learned from friends that Allen had a pistol and was looking for him, and Holliday shot and wounded Allen in the arm as Allen entered Hyman’s Saloon on Harrison Street. Holliday was acquitted of attempted murder.

Margaret Tobin Brown made a fortune from a Leadville gold mine before she became famous for surviving the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and having her life story told in the 1960s musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Brown, who grew up in Missouri, moved to Leadville at the age of 19 and worked as a clerk in a dry-goods store. She married mining engineer J.J. Brown, and he developed a method of shoring up mine walls so that mines could be dug deeper, which led to the 1893 discovery of gold in the Little Jonny Mine. Brown was rewarded with a one-eighth ownership in the mine, making the Browns millionaires. They moved to a Denver mansion in 1894 but separated in 1909.

Silver production in Leadville reached a peak of nearly $11.5 million in 1880 but began to decline in 1881 and collapsed with the silver crash of 1893. Tabor was among those hard-hit by the crash, and he was left virtually penniless at his death in 1899. His second wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, lived alone and in poverty for many years in a supply cabin near the Matchless Mine until her death in 1935.

By 1893, however, Leadville was not totally reliant on silver. Gold deposits had been discovered in 1891, and the mining of gold, lead, zinc, and copper led to another boom in 1901. Through the years, the Leadville mining district is credited with producing over 2.9 million troy ounces of gold, 240 million troy ounces of silver, 1 million short tons of lead, 785 thousand short tons of zinc, and 53 thousand short tons of copper.

Leadville’s economic struggles led townspeople to build the world’s largest ice palace in 1896 in hopes of drawing sightseers and create jobs. The Norman-style structure was 325 feet by 180 feet with walls 8 feet thick and towers 90 feet high. The structure consumed 5,000 tons of ice and contained a skating rink, a grand ballroom, a restaurant, gaming rooms, toboggan runs, and a carousel house. It opened in January and closed in May.

Leadville was the scene of a bitter strike in 1896-87 by the Cloud City Miners’ Union, part of the Western Federation of Miners. The union demanded a raise of 50 cents an hour for all miners not making $3 an hour, the same amount that mine wages had been cut during the silver crash of 1893. The mine owners united and refused to negotiate, and 968 miners walked out while mine owners locked out another 1,332.

The Coronado Mine, which was using armed replacement workers, was the scene of shootings and dynamite explosions, and there was a confrontation between striking miners and replacements at the Robert Emmet Mine in September 1896. At least four union miners and one fireman were killed, and the violence caused an estimated $50,000 in damages, prompting Gov. Albert McIntire to send the Colorado National Guard to Leadville. Twenty-seven union miners were jailed, though charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. With soldiers protecting strike breakers, the strike failed by 1887.

Leadville’s mineral riches expanded during World War I as the Climax mine on Fremont Pass a dozen miles north of town began producing molybdenum ore. The mineral was in demand as an alloy to harden steel, and the mine began full production in 1914, with the first ore shipment in 1915. After the war, demand fell, and the mine shut down. But it was reopened by the Climax Molybdenum Co. in 1924 and became the world’s largest molybdenum mine and the source of more than three-fourths of the world’s supply, as demand grew for molybdenum in the metal alloys for turbines of jet engines.

During World War II, Leadville got a boost from the creation of Camp Hale 16 miles north of town to train soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in winter warfare, with as many as 15,000 soldiers stationed there. Leadville became a popular spot for soldiers on leave, though first it had to curb prostitution after being declared off-limits.

In 1961, the Leadville Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places, with nine key buildings, including the Tabor Opera House, Tabor Grand Hotel, Tabor House, City Hall, Dexter Cabin, and Healy House, plus 67 mines east of the city.

The Leadville area, however, also suffered from the consequences of mining. Soil, sediments, and surface water were heavily contaminated by lead, zinc, and other heavy metals. Acid mine drainage was taking a heavy toll on the Arkansas River, destroying native vegetation and wildlife habitat, and threatening downstream water supplies for recreation, livestock, irrigation, and public drinking. In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed a parts of a 16.5-square-mile area around Leadville on the national Superfund list as the California Gulch site, which marked it for cleanup.

Leadville’s economy was rocked in 1987 when the Climax mine suspended production because of weak demand for molybdenum. The town lost its population, and unemployment hit 40 percent. The mine began operating on a limited basis in 1986 but closed again in 1995. The owner, Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., has announced plans to reopen the mine once the economy improves.

The National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame opened in Leadville in 1987.

The Leadville community, which had fought the EPA for a decade over the Superfund designation for California Gulch, relented after two of the legally responsible parties, Asarco and the Resurrection Mining Co., signed a consent decree with the EPA in 1993 to clean up portions of the site. Asarco organized community support for the creation of the 11.6-mile Mineral Belt Trail to loop through Leadville, the California Gulch, and other parts of Lake County, as part of the cleanup. The trail opened in 2000 as a national recreational trail for bicyclists, hikers, wheelchair athletes, and cross-country skiers.