August Robert Meyer (1851–1905) was a mining engineer who played a central role in starting Leadville’s silver boom in the late 1870s. Meyer recognized the value of the area’s lead carbonate ores, built a smelter, developed local infrastructure, and helped organize the new city. After leaving Colorado in 1881, Meyer moved to Kansas City, where he ran a successful smelting company, campaigned for urban parks, and contributed to charitable causes.
August Meyer was born on August 20, 1851, to German immigrants Margaretha and Henry Meyer in St. Louis, Missouri. His father worked in manufacturing, and as a young man he showed an early aptitude for mechanical tinkering. At age fourteen he left St. Louis to study mining and metallurgy at the Bergakademie in Freiberg, Saxony, then the premier school of its kind in the world. During his several-year stay in Europe, Meyer toured mining and smelting regions throughout Eastern Europe. Upon his return to St. Louis, he was hired by Edwin Harrison’s St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company, established in 1870 to process ores arriving from Colorado via the newly completed Kansas Pacific Railway to Denver.
“Father of the Carbonate Camp”
Meyer’s talent as a mining engineer and manager soon brought him to Colorado. In the mid-1870s, Harrison sent Meyer to Alma, a mining town in Park County, to establish a sampling works and serve as a local ore buyer for St. Louis Smelting and Refining. Meyer arrived in Alma in time to meet William Stevens and Alvinus Wood, who in 1876 came across the Mosquito Range from California Gulch carrying carbonate ore samples laced with silver. Intrigued, Meyer followed the miners back to the mining camp of Oro City (near present-day Leadville) to examine their claims. In fall 1876, he purchased the first load of lead carbonate ore from the area and shipped it to St. Louis to determine its quality.
Meyer’s first shipment was not rich enough in silver to pay for its own transportation. However, it was promising enough for St. Louis Smelting and Refining to get Meyer to set up a sampling works near Oro City to assess local deposits. In spring 1877, Meyer sent a second shipment of carbonate ore to his employers in St. Louis. Its high yield prompted company president Harrison to come to Colorado to inspect the California Gulch mines. Meyer, too, sensed he was sitting on a bonanza, and even before Harrison arrived, he had acquired land next to his sampling works to build a large smelter.
Once Harrison got to town, he and Meyer worked quickly to develop the infrastructure necessary for large-scale mining. While their smelter, the Harrison Reduction Works, rose in 1877 at what is now the southern end of Harrison Avenue, Harrison built new roads to the mines and across Weston Pass to the nearest railroad. Meyer busily bought ore, organized freighting operations, and served as the closest thing the mining camp had to a bank. At the start of 1878, Meyer attended a meeting to formally organize a new town near the smelter and voted to name it Leadville. With the Harrison smelter in operation, the boom could begin in earnest. In 1880 a local booster called Meyer the “father of the Carbonate Camp.”
The Leadville boom attracted tens of thousands of workers, including a twenty-year-old woman named Emma Jane Hixon, who found a job at Horace Tabor’s post office. Sometime in early 1878, she met Meyer, and they married on May 24 in a small ceremony at Tabor’s house. That summer and fall, the Meyers built themselves a two-story, white-clapboard house on a small rise at the north end of town. In 1879 Emma gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Ruth. Meanwhile, August continued to serve as Harrison’s local manager and helped establish the First Bank of Leadville.
Kansas City Smelting Baron
In 1881, after more than a decade managing the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company’s interests, Meyer went into business for himself. He bought a controlling interest in the Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company and became the company’s president. His family sold the Leadville house and moved to Argentine, Kansas, the site of the Kansas City company’s smelter. Even from afar, Meyer maintained a strong connection to the smelting industry in Colorado. In 1882 he was the lead investor in a group that bought Leadville’s Utah smelter and formed the Arkansas Valley Smelting Company, with Meyer later serving as company president.
In Kansas City Meyer’s career took off, and he quickly became a prominent figure in the national smelting industry. Not only did his Argentine Smelter produce $130 million in gold, silver, and lead during the 1880s and 1890s, but also he aggressively expanded his company until Consolidated Kansas City Smelting and Refining was the dominant smelting firm in the United States, with operations in Kansas City, Leadville, El Paso, and San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
From his perch atop the smelting industry, Meyer weathered the Panic of 1893 and the long depression that followed with relatively little turbulence. In 1893 he shut down his Arkansas Valley smelter in Leadville for several months after wage cuts sparked a strike. Otherwise, by shifting resources throughout his company’s holdings and increasing efficiency at his smelters, he managed to keep his Leadville, El Paso, and Kansas City plants running and even turned a profit. In 1899, as part of a wave of corporate consolidation in the wake of the economic downturn, Meyer joined with a handful of other smelting companies to form the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO). Meyer served on the board and led the company’s ore-buying committee for a year, until the Guggenheim family took control, replaced Meyer with Solomon Guggenheim as head of the ore-buying committee, and closed Meyer’s old Argentine Smelter.
Meanwhile, Meyer had moved his family from Argentine to Kansas City, Missouri, where by the 1890s he was an influential civic and cultural leader. He served as president of the Provident Association (now the Family Conservancy), which worked to reduce poverty, and also headed the Commercial Club. He is best remembered for his efforts to bring City Beautiful parks and boulevards to Kansas City. He was instrumental in the creation of a city parks board in 1892 and served as the board’s first president.
Meyer died on December 1, 1905, at the age of fifty-four, of what was probably a cerebral hemorrhage. In Kansas City, the system of parks and boulevards that he helped initiate continues to define the city’s urban landscape. A memorial to Meyer stands in a park-like boulevard median at the intersection of East Tenth Street and Paseo Boulevard, and he is also the namesake of Meyer Boulevard. In 1927 a local philanthropist bought the Meyer House, an elegant Queen Anne–style mansion on Warwick Boulevard, and donated it to the Kansas City Art Institute for use as a new campus. The art institute continues to use the building as administrative offices.
Despite Meyer’s importance in launching Leadville’s boom, his role there tends to be overshadowed in popular memory by the city’s more colorful characters, such as Tabor or his second wife, “Baby Doe.” Nevertheless, his legacy is preserved at the stately residence he built for his family, which is now known as Healy House and is operated by History Colorado as a museum. More troublingly, the smelters he built and the mining boom he helped launch resulted in the pollution of local groundwater and soil with toxic heavy metals. In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency listed Leadville and much of the surrounding area as a Superfund site; decades later, environmental cleanup and monitoring continue.