At an elevation of 10,152 feet in the central Rocky Mountains, Leadville is the Lake County seat and the highest incorporated city in the United States. Gold first brought prospectors to the area in the early 1860s, but Leadville itself was not established until a silver boom in the late 1870s. Silver lured tens of thousands of people to town and launched the fortunes of Colorado figures such as Horace Tabor, Margaret Tobin Brown, and the Guggenheim family. Leadville’s historic mining district gradually declined in the early twentieth century, especially after World War I, but the rise of the nearby Climax Molybdenum Mine ensured that the town remained tied to mining. In the 1980s, the decline of Climax caused economic devastation in Leadville, but the town of 2,600 residents bounced back in the 2000s with a more diversified economy supported by outdoor recreation and heritage tourism.
Gold in California Gulch
For nearly 500 years, Ute Indians, primarily the Tabeguache band, frequented the headwaters of the Arkansas River, visiting the area as part of their seasonal migratory rounds. As in much of the rest of Colorado, that traditional pattern of life changed rapidly after the discovery of gold brought a flood of prospectors to the Front Range in 1858–59. By 1860 groups of prospectors were spreading throughout the central mountains in search of gold. Two such parties met that spring near what is now Buena Vista and moved north along the Arkansas River, testing each tributary they passed. On April 25, Abe Lee found gold in California Gulch, supposedly named for Lee’s joyful shouts that he saw California (gold) in his pan.
News of Lee’s find spread rapidly. By the end of the summer, about 10,000 people lined five miles of California Gulch, at first living in wagons, tents, and brush huts. As the mining camp stabilized, with more permanent log cabins and stores, it took the name Oro City. Even then, most people stayed only during the summer, then went down to Denver or some other city to wait out the long winter. The gulch was rich enough to justify returning, with more than $3 million in gold panned by 1865. At that point, with most of the easily available gold panned out, the area mostly emptied. The discovery of the Printer Boy lode drew a new wave of miners to the area in 1868–69, but by 1870 the area had declined once again to a few people.
The remaining miners included William Stevens and Alvinus Wood, who hoped to use a hydraulic process to work old placer tailings. Unlike earlier prospectors, who focused on gold, Stevens and Wood decided to investigate the heavy black mud that had been the bane of Oro City’s placer miners. In 1874 they determined that it was lead carbonate full of silver. Keeping their discovery a secret, the two miners told others (even their own workers) that they were mining lead. They then staked out claims across the hills before finally announcing their discovery in 1876.
The first outside interest in the silver that Stevens and Wood had found came from the St. Louis Smelting & Refining Company. In September 1876, the company’s local agent, August Meyer, bought 300 tons of ore and shipped it to St. Louis. The rock didn’t yield much, but Meyer’s second shipment the next spring was rich enough to convince company president Edwin Harrison to come to Colorado. In the meantime, Meyer built a sampling works to test ore quality a few miles down the gulch from Oro City, whose residents packed up and joined him. A post office with the new name of Leadville opened there in July.
In the summer of 1877, Harrison and Meyer worked quickly to develop the infrastructure Leadville needed to become a mining boomtown. They erected the area’s first real smelter, the Harrison Reduction Works, at what is now the corner of Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street, next to Meyer’s sampling works. They also initiated the area’s first road-building program, with new roads connecting the mines to the smelter and the smelter via Weston Pass to the nearest railhead. By the time the smelter’s first furnace started burning in October, the Leadville boom was ready to begin.
At the start of 1878, when Leadville was officially incorporated, the town had a few hundred residents. By the end of 1879, it had mushroomed to about 30,000 people, nearly the same size as Denver. They started streaming into the area in the summer of 1878, as news spread of major discoveries, most notably George Hook and August Rische’s Little Pittsburg Mine. A few lucky miners hit it rich by discovering productive mines such as the Little Pittsburg, Chrysolite, and Matchless. Others, including local merchant Horace Tabor, made their fortune by grubstaking, or fronting prospectors’ equipment in exchange for a share of their discoveries. Grubstaking got Tabor a share of the Little Pittsburg, which he then sold, investing his profit in the Chrysolite and Matchless Mines as well as in real estate and other businesses. Despite those success stories, the majority of miners who came to Leadville ended up doing hard labor in mines owned by others for a wage of $2.00–3.50 per day.
From Disorder to Order
The rapid arrival of so many people meant that Leadville took on a ramshackle shape almost overnight. Ethnic neighborhoods formed: Irish to the east, Germans to the west, Cornish to the southwest, some African Americans and Jews as well. As with many mining boomtowns full of single men on the make, Leadville acquired a well-deserved reputation for violence and vice. State Street (now Second Street) served as the headquarters for much of this activity, but in a town with 35 brothels, 115 gambling houses, and 120 saloons, liquor and prostitutes were not hard to find.
Yet Leadville was also, even in its frenzied early years, showing the trappings of society. In 1878, when the boom had just begun, August Meyer built a stately house for himself and his new wife at the top of a hill on the north side of town. Two churches, three banks, a hospital, and a school also opened that year. By 1879, when Leadville became the Lake County seat, the town boasted three newspapers and what was said to be the busiest post office between St. Louis and San Francisco.
By 1880 the frenzy of Leadville’s boom was starting to show greater signs of stability. In a bid to assert more control over their wages and working conditions, miners went on strike that May, first at the Chrysolite and then throughout the district. Tensions between workers and owners mounted until mid-June, when Governor Frederick Pitkin sided with the owners and declared martial law to protect the mines. With the question of who would control Leadville’s mining economy firmly settled, miners returned to the status quo before the strike.
Prosperity helped assuage the miners’ failure to gain power. The arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad soon after the end of the strike provided quicker and cheaper transportation. Brick storefronts and fancy houses replaced shoddy boomtown structures. The Lake County Courthouse opened in 1880, and two new schools followed in the next two years. The arrival of the railroad also led to the decline of Leadville’s thriving smelting industry, with about three-quarters of the area’s sixteen smelters closing in the 1880s because it now made more sense to ship ore down to Denver or Pueblo for processing. A drain of Leadville’s wealthiest citizens to Denver caused the town to lose some social and cultural capital as well.
After the Crash
By the early 1890s, Leadville was no longer a boomtown, but improvements in mining techniques and technology had enabled consistent production. The town still counted more than 10,000 residents, who were served by three railroads, five newspapers, nine churches, about fifty social clubs, and more than ninety saloons.
All that changed almost overnight in 1893, when the United States entered an economic panic and repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, causing the price of silver to plummet. Most silver mines in Leadville and across Colorado closed, thrusting the state into economic turmoil and bankrupting some of its most famous mining millionaires, including Horace Tabor.
Leadville recovered from the crash thanks to rebounding prices as well as structural changes that inaugurated a new era in the area’s mining economy. Miners and managers agreed on a new, lower wage structure that allowed more miners to remain employed. At the same time, mines turned to metals other than silver, heavily expanding their production of gold, copper, zinc, and lead. By 1895 Leadville had returned to its position as Colorado’s most productive mining town.
That winter the town built a giant ice palace in a bid to attract tourists and boost the local economy. The attraction was spectacular, the largest ice structure ever built in North America, but stingy tourists and unusually warm weather meant the palace did not make a dime. The ice palace’s wooden structure was torn down in the summer of 1896 to provide barracks for state militia troops opposing striking workers from the Cloud City Miners’ Union. A Western Federation of Miners (WFM) local representing about 90 percent of area miners, the union sustained its strike for months before eventually capitulating to the combined power of mine owners and state officials. The strike was a turning point for the WFM, which became more militant in order to counter the organization and hostility of owners.
Afterward, the town experienced a decade of stable growth. About 4,000 area miners extracted 3,000 tons of ore every day, now mostly zinc and gold but also silver, lead, manganese, bismuth, and copper. But Leadville’s economy remained susceptible to the usual mining rollercoaster of booms and busts. The Panic of 1907 caused production to drop by 50 percent in a year, but then the discovery of zinc carbonates allowed for a quick recovery, which was sped along by increased demand for metals during World War I. Local mining received another boost in 1918, when the Climax Mine opened at nearby Fremont Pass to produce molybdenum, a metal used to strengthen steel.
Leadville miners went on strike again in 1919 to protest wage cuts, but they had little leverage. Metal prices declined after World War I, forcing many local mines to close. Production fell by more than two-thirds and never recovered. As a result, Leadville’s population declined from more than 12,000 in 1900 to about 4,000 by 1930. By that time, the city’s banks had closed and the Colorado Midland Railroad had stopped service.
The main exception to this downward trajectory was the Climax Mine. By the late 1920s, the mine employed several hundred workers and accounted for 75 percent of global molybdenum production. By 1934 the mine was producing $7.5 million worth of molybdenum, or ten times as much as all the other mines in Lake County put together.
An All-American City
During World War II, Leadville benefited from the construction of nearby Camp Hale, which trained soldiers of the Tenth Mountain Division for alpine combat, and from booming production at the Climax mine, whose molybdenum was crucial to the war effort. Despite the closure of Camp Hale and declining metal prices after the war, the town continued to thrive, thanks largely to the Climax mine’s ongoing importance as the Cold War set in.
Leadville embarked on a period of modernization, replacing old buildings with new. By 1959 the town felt fresh enough to receive an All-American City designation from Look magazine. Yet it did not follow the model of Aspen and Breckenridge in reinventing itself as a ski resort; instead, it remained a mining town.
By the end of the 1970s, the Climax mine accounted for 86 percent of Lake County property taxes and employed 1,800 Lake County residents (most of them in Leadville), giving the county the highest per capita income of any rural county in Colorado. Then a recession toppled the global molybdenum market, forcing Climax to cut production and slash its workforce by half between December 1980 and April 1982. The mine closed for a month in the summer of 1982, then suspended production indefinitely that fall.
The effect on Leadville was devastating, as thousands of workers lost their jobs. Many former employees moved away, causing Lake County to lead the nation in population decline in the 1980s, while others accepted long commutes to lower-paying work at resorts in Summit and Eagle Counties. Leadville’s population fell by a third, while school enrollments and housing prices declined by 50 percent.
Leadville launched an economic-recovery initiative and solicited advice from state economic advisers, who recommended that the city diversify its economy with tourism and light manufacturing. Some locals took matters into their own hands. Ken Chlouber, a Lake County commissioner and Climax employee, encouraged ultrarunner Jim Butera to stage a planned 100-mile running race in Leadville as a way to draw overnight visitors. The first Leadville Trail 100 Run was held in August 1983. It had only forty-four starters but suggested one way for the town to attract tourists.
Leadville’s tourist numbers did climb in the mid-1980s, driven in part by the growing population of Colorado as a whole and the growing interest of those people in the state’s early mining history. Leadville had paid some attention to its past as early as the 1930s. Then, following the postwar surge in redevelopment, a revived interest in the area’s history gained steam after the town was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961. In 1987 Leadville drew the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum to town by offering a good deal on the former high school building. Nevertheless, none of this activity could replace the wages and tax revenue that had been lost when Climax closed.
Leadville showed new signs of life in the 1990s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had declared the area a Superfund site in 1983 because of the toxic metals and other pollutants that decades of mining and smelting had spewed all over town. A decade later, the EPA’s remediation efforts were beginning to bear fruit: lower lead levels, improved water and air quality, and fewer heaps of mining waste. Those changes made the town increasingly attractive, as did a variety of historic restoration projects accomplished with money from the new State Historical Fund.
Improvements to Leadville’s natural and built environment laid the groundwork for the town to attract larger numbers of tourists and new residents. In 1994 the Leadville Trail 100 Run attracted national news coverage, and organizers launched a companion mountain bike event to draw even more endurance athletes to town. Spurred by the EPA cleanup, other residents designed the Mineral Belt Trail, an 11.6-mile paved recreation loop through the historic mining district, which opened in 2000. By the time the Climax mine finally resumed production in 2012, providing a few hundred jobs, Leadville was becoming a hotbed for endurance sports and outdoor recreation of all kinds.
Leadville’s reputation as a cheap mountain town on an upward trajectory and its proximity to attractions such as Turquoise Lake and Mt. Elbert drew an influx of second-home owners and short-term rentals as well as new housing developments around the city’s fringes. The local economy surged and trendy new restaurants opened, but increased rents and housing prices displaced locals and largely Latinx resort workers who felt that Leadville was the last place they could still afford to live. At the start of the 2020s, their future in Leadville was an open question and the town’s character remained in flux.