One of Colorado’s original seventeen counties, Lake County is a mountainous, 384-square mile county in the west-central part of the state. Leadville, a historic mining town ringed by tall peaks near the headwaters of the Arkansas River, serves as county seat; at 10,152 feet, it is the highest incorporated city in the United States. The county is home to Mt. Elbert, the highest point in the North American Rockies at 14,440 feet. It is also home to the second-highest point, Mt. Massive, which stands at 14,428 feet. Two other peaks in the county, Mt. Democrat (14,155) and Mt. Sherman (14,043), also qualify as Fourteeners. All of Lake County’s fourteeners are in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest. Other scenic locales in the county include Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake.
Lake County is bordered by Eagle County to the north, Park County to the east, Chaffee County to the south, and Pitkin County to the west. It has a population of 7,310, with 2,602 people residing in Leadville and the rest spread out in the surrounding rural areas. About 170 live in the small village of Twin Lakes, about twenty miles south of Leadville.
From about the mid-sixteenth century until the late nineteenth century, the Lake County area was inhabited by a band of Utes called the Parianuche or “elk people.” The Utes hunted elk, deer, and other mountain game. They also gathered a wide assortment of roots, including those of the versatile yucca, and wild berries. In the summer, they followed large game such as elk into Lake County’s high country, and in the winter they tracked the game back down to lower elevations.
In 1860 the prospector Abe Lee found gold in California Gulch, just south of present-day Leadville. As many as 8,000 people arrived shortly thereafter, and in five years they panned or sluiced out nearly all of the surface gold—worth some $4 million—from the chilly high-country creeks. In 1861, the Territorial Legislature created Lake County, named for the Twin Lakes. Oro City, the name of the first gold-mining camp, was designated the first county seat. Originally an enormous county that stretched from the Arkansas headwaters in the east all the way to the Utah border in the west, the county had by 1879 ceded all of its western land to the creation of Saguache, Hinsdale, La Plata, San Juan, Ouray, and Gunnison Counties.
A treaty in 1868 pushed the Utes out of the high country surrounding the Arkansas headwaters and paved the way for Leadville’s development, which followed major silver strikes during the 1870s. By 1874 most of the early gold miners had left Oro City, and the town seemed to be on the path toward disappearance. Soon, however, miners discovered that the heavy, gray mineral that so often clogged the gold seekers’ sluices was actually a silver ore. By 1875 several miners had purchased claims, but they had to wait until an ore-splitting smelter was built to start making any profit. They sent samples to a refining company in St. Louis, and a smelter was built in 1877. By that time mines had sprung up on Iron and Carbonate Hills, and the town of Leadville was established in 1877. Three years later, the area was the continental center of silver and lead mining, with fifteen smelters and thirty-seven blast furnaces processing millions of dollars’ worth of ore.
In May 1878, two miners discovered another silver lode near Leadville on Fryer Hill. The silver rush turned around Lake County’s fortunes almost overnight: in the early 1870s, Oro City had a mere 250 people; by the end of the decade, Leadville was the second-largest city in Colorado with a population approaching 15,000. The rapid and remarkably profitable development of Leadville’s mineral wealth made the town famous, attracting attention from newspapers all over the country, as well as current and former presidents. In 1880, for example, former president Ulysses S. Grant rode the inaugural train into Leadville on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
Horace Tabor, a former gold miner and shopkeeper, had purchased part ownership in the Little Pittsburgh Mine that was established in Oro City. By September 1878, the mine was worth nearly half a million dollars, and the next year Tabor sold his one-third interest for $1 million. In 1880 the Little Pittsburgh Mine ran out of ore, and by 1881 the value of its shares dropped from $34 to $1.50.
Tabor’s reinvestments in other mines and in Denver real estate made him one of the richest men in the nation, and he served as mayor of Leadville and even briefly as a stand-in US senator. However, Tabor’s wealth was always tied to the silver boom, and it disappeared when the mines began to run out and the price of silver crashed in 1893.
Other Mining Activities
The crash in silver prices during the Panic of 1893 wiped out about 90 percent of the jobs in Leadville. But silver was only one of Lake County’s geologic riches. Before the silver crash was a year old, James Joseph Brown, a mine superintendent and the husband of Margaret “Molly” Brown, found gold in the Little Johnny Mine. Other mines continued to produce zinc, lead, copper, bismuth, iron, manganese, and even silver, although it had lost considerable value.
In the early twentieth century, molybdenum, a metal used in the production of structural steel and other alloys, was discovered north of Leadville and led to the opening of the Climax Molybdenum Mine in 1918. The mine employed about 3,000 people and supplied nearly half of the world’s molybdenum. The Climax Molybdenum Company operated the mine from 1924 to 1987, when its closure again sunk the Leadville area into economic depression. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold announced in 2007 that the mine would resume production, but in 2008 tumbling molybdenum prices led the company to delay its reopening. The Climax Mine finally reopened in 2012 and continues to produce the metal today.
In 1942, the army completed construction of Camp Hale about seventeen miles north of Leadville. The mountain camp served to train US troops for winter survival, skiing, and alpine combat. The Tenth Mountain Division trained at Camp Hale and put its skills to use in 1945 during combat in Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Although the unit suffered heavy casualties, it played an integral part in the liberation of northern Italy by breaching German lines in the Apennines and securing the Po River Valley.
Today, Leadville and Lake County are popular destinations for vacationers, hikers, hunters, campers, and historic tourists. An official Historic Landmark of Victorian Architecture, Leadville boasts some fifty nineteenth-century buildings, a twenty-square-mile historic mining district, and more museums than any other town in the state. The mountains around Leadville are also strewn with abandoned mining structures, such as Hilltop Mine on Mt. Sherman and mining buildings in the now-defunct town of Climax.