by Claire Noble
From gunslinger Doc Holliday and bon vivant Oscar Wilde to the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, the town of Leadville attracted a colorful cast of characters over the years, which gave rise to a common saying in Leadville's early days, "Everyone comes to Leadville." Not wanting to be left out, I headed down Highway 24 from Minturn early one morning to see what the hoopla was all about.
If Denver is the Mile High City that means Leadville is the Two Mile High City. At 10,152 ft. Leadville is America's highest incorporated city. The first miners to the area referred to it as the "city in the clouds." At that elevation you would not expect to be looking up at anything but you do--the view from Leadville takes in Colorado's highest peaks, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.
Gold initially lured people to Leadville in the hopes of striking it rich. A few did, but most did not. When the gold ran out miners switched to silver. When the silver ran out many people moved on. Despite the bust and boom times, Leadville remains a mining town to this day. The Climax Mine extracts molybdenum, which is used in steel alloys. However, Leadville's population, once more than 30,000, is now less than 3,000.
Time travelers from the 19th century would easily recognize many of Leadville's earliest landmarks such as the Silver Dollar Saloon, Tabor Opera House, and Annunciation Church--because they are all still standing and still in operation nearly 140 years after they were built.
Several of Leadville's most impressive edifices bear the name of Tabor. The Tabor Opera House was one of the most costly buildings constructed in Colorado at the time of its dedication in 1879. For many years it was considered the finest performance venue between St. Louis and San Francisco. A short distance from the opera house is the Hotel Tabor--still an impressive edifice to this day. Horace Tabor who built both was once one of the wealthiest men in the world. Tabor fell in love with local beauty Baby Doe and divorced his wife for her. This was shocking even for a Wild West town. His fortune was all but obliterated with the Silver Panic of 1893. With his fortune depleted Tabor urged Baby Doe to maintain the claim on the Matchless Mine after his death from appendicitis in 1899. Baby Doe lived in a shack next to the mine for the last 30 years of her life. She was found frozen in her shack in 1935.
I brought my cruiser bike to get around Leadville and easily crisscrossed the town. Leadville packs in a lot of history and a lot to see in a rather contained space. In addition to the landmarks I mentioned above, I visited the Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, the Temple Israel Museum, and the Silver Dollar Saloon.
I also got a chance to talk with Steven Ayers, the engineer for the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad. This train was originally a spur line of a much longer route that originated in Texas and traveled all the way to Wyoming. Back in Leadville's boom days three rail lines operated in Leadville. Today the only remaining train takes visitors along the Arkansas River Valley--the headwaters of the Arkansas River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. The train is a family business that Steven married into. His wife Kirsten joked that he, "married me for my train."
Leadville is perhaps better known these days as home of two of the country's most formidable endurance races--the legendary Leadville 100 Trail Run and Mountain Bike Race held each year in early August. In the winter Leadville hosts the Leadville Loppet Nordic Ski Race. The Loppet course uses the Mineral Belt Trail where racers test their cross-country skiing ability at high altitude in the 44K, 22K, 10K, or 5K-costume race. There is also a 1K kids' race.
There was so much I did not get to in my short trip to Leadville. Next time I have to visit the Hopemore Mine, the Heritage Museum, and the National Fish Hatchery. If you have a suggestion you would like to share please do.
The best thing about Leadville is that it is authentic. It is the real deal. So stop by the Silver Dollar Saloon, sidle up to the bar and order a drink. As you sip your preferred beverage consider that Doc Holliday once tossed back more than a few whiskeys right were you are standing.
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