At an elevation of 10,430 feet, Leadville, Colorado is the highest incorporated city in North America. Nestled between the Swatch Mountains and the Tenmile Mountain ranges, Leadville is a lovely small town that was founded during a silver mining boom. Its 70-square block downtown is a National Historic District that features iconic Victorian era architecture. Today in fifty of these 19th century historic buildings along Harrison Avenue, the city’s main street, there are shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums. We enjoyed strolling down Harrison Avenue, sampling some eats in the restaurants, and poking around in the shops.
Abe Lee discovered gold in the California Gulch in 1860. When word of his find got out, it prompted about 8,000 prospectors to relocate to the high country near Leadville. Over the course of the next five years, $4,000,000 worth of gold flowed out of this region, the most of any part of Colorado. When gold became scarce, silver mining took its place as the primary wealth producer. Leadville was the richest silver mining boom town in Colorado. By 1880, Leadville had more than 30,000 residents and had many stores and shops, hotels, boarding houses, saloons, dance halls, along with many other services that supported the mining industry. According to many historians, it was one of the most sophisticated and modern cities in the world at that time.
Since mining was central to the success of Leadville, David and I went to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. Housed in the Victorian high school building built in 1899, this 70,000 sq. foot museum, called “the Smithsonian of the West,” has many interactive exhibits and replicas of three hard-rock underground mines that you can walk through. The permanent collection also includes dioramas of mining techniques, displays of mining tools, and collections of precious minerals, metals, and gems.
One room contains multiple detailed dioramas of past mining operations.
Featured there are biographies of some of Leadville’s most influential figures. Many miners and mining company owners and investors became extraordinarily wealthy during the silver boom. The most famous “self-made” silver baron was Horace Tabor. Born in 1830 in Maine, he and his wife, Augusta, came to Leadville in 1860. Augusta was a very industrious woman and she set up a bakery and restaurant in town while her husband searched for gold. They made enough money, more from Augusta’s than Horace’s endeavors, to open up a mercantile store. Horace would provide prospectors with supplies (“grubstaking”) in exchange for a percentage of what the miner found. Augusta did not like this practice and this led to a lot of friction between them. By 1878, many of Horace’s “investments” began to yield millions of dollars. He was one of the wealthiest men in the state and he enjoyed spending money and living an opulent lifestyle. Augusta was a more practical and level-headed businesswoman and she often tried to rein in her husband. After 27 years of marriage, during which Augusta helped her husband achieve his success, Horace divorced her in 1880 leaving her only a mansion in Denver and little else. She had to abandon Leadville and their home on 5th Street and relocate to Denver where she began taking in boarders. She did well for herself and when she died, she was a millionaire in her own right. (The Tabor Home, where Horace and Augusta lived until their divorce, is open for tours from May to Labor Day.)
Before the divorce was even final, Horace married his mistress, Elizabeth McCourt Doe (“Baby Doe”). Baby Doe was a blond-headed woman who was 20 years younger than he was. Baby Doe did not eschew the lavish lifestyle that Horace enjoyed. Horace was elected Lt. Governor of Colorado and Leadville was so prominent that it almost became the state capital. Denver won by only 2 votes!
During the silver boom, fortunes were made by Horace Tabor, David May, J. J. Brown and his wife, the Guggenheim family and the Boettcher family. Horace spent money extravagantly because he was convinced that silver would be king forever. In 1893, however, the government repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and silver prices plummeted. This wiped out the wealth of many rich investors and entrepreneurs, chief among them were the Tabors. By 1895, the Tabors were bankrupt. He was named the postmaster of Denver but he never regained his fortune. He died in 1899 penniless. Baby Doe lived out her final years alone in a cabin at the Matchless Mine in Leadville that Horace had bequeathed her. (Tours of the Matchless Mine are available from May through September.) Horace Tabor’s life is a true “Rags to Riches to Rags” story.
Horace Tabor’s legacy is still on display in Leadville. His name appears on street signs and on historic buildings all over town. The Tabor Opera House is one of the most significant contributions that Horace made to the community. It was said to be the grandest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco. At a cost of $40,000, this performance venue seated 880 people and opened in 1879. Many entertainers such as Houdini, Oscar Wilde, and John Phillip Sousa performed in this elegant setting. (The City of Leadville owns the Tabor Opera House now and you can tour it when you are downtown.) This entertainment venue drew famous people to the city. President Theodore Roosevelt came to visit Leadville and Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the first train to the city.
David and I learned a lot at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. We would definitely recommend visiting since it gave us a greater appreciation for the city and its history.
In addition to the museum, there are many other interesting things to do in the city. There is a Historic Walking Tour of Leadville with 38 different sites that you can see on foot. Available at the downtown Visitor Center is a map and an interpretive guide. We walked around much of downtown and explored some of these historic places. Here are a few of the ones that we saw:
The Tabor Grand was designed by George E. King, a local architect, and had many modern conveniences. It was completed in 1884.
The “Old Church,” which was a Presbyterian Church, and was dedicated in 1889. It is currently a venue for cultural events.
Built in 1911, the Masonic Lodge has been in continuous use by the organization since its dedication.
The St. George Episcopal Church was built in 1880.
The Temple Israel was built in 1884 on land donated by David May, a merchant who began what is today Macy’s department store. This building is currently a synagogue and a museum.
The Route of the Silver Kings is a driving tour of Leadville’s Mining District near the Tenmile Mountain range. There were hundreds of mines in operation near Leadville and this tour provides an overview of some of these mines, including the famous Matchless Mine. The information that we were given states that these mines that operated from 1860-1999 produced 3,300,00 ounces of gold, 265,400,000 ounces of silver, 2,400,000,000 pounds of lead, and significant amounts of zinc, copper, manganese, and iron.
Leadville is very inviting with it shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums. It is also a great place to pursue both summer and winter activities. In addition to its scenic beauty, there is so much to see and do here. You could easily spend a month exploring Leadville and the surrounding area. This is definitely a place that we would enjoy coming back to visit.