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Leadville History
Leadville Mines

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Town view 1905
W. H. Jackson


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Chestnut Street


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Leadville, CO
Elevation 10,200 ft.
Population 4,959 (c1920).
Denver 276 miles.


In 1860, a long wash located in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, on the west side of the Ten Mile range,  experienced one of the first attacks of Colorado mining mania. The gulch where the battle started runs in an east-west direction for about 7 miles in the upper limits of the Arkansas River basin. It's upper banks were lined with rough grasses and sage brush. Lodge Pole Pine trees were scattered throughout the valley. Others species like Fir, Spruce and Aspen were also found. Oro City was the first of what could barely be called a town to spring up.

By 1865 the first boom in California gulch pretty much dried up and nothing much happened until around 1870 when new finds of a gold bearing lode were discovered. Oro City tended to move up and down the valley following new discoveries. Unfortunately, the area lacked the facilities to pump the mines of the ever present rocky mountain waters that could prevent any excavation by filling downward moving tunnels with streams of water seeping in from the sides. Without large equipment the mines could not really be worked to their full extent.

In 1873 a small town emerged south of Oro and somehow labeled itself Slabville. This complex eventually evolved into the glorious mining city of Leadville. The entire area of the headwaters of the Arkansas river became fair game. There were so many mining claims filed that the old maps look like a game of pick-up-sticks with all the  narrow strips of claims zig-zagging over every square inch of the richest places.

Throughout some of the mines they found a bothersome "black mud" that hampered the duty of the moment which was pricking gold specks from the earth. William Stevens was the most noted fellow to get suspicious about the black mud and have it assayed for content. Stevens quickly joined with Alvinus Wood and the two kept their mouths shut about the black mud assay results and proceeded to go around buying up many of the claims containing the scoundrel black mud or simply waiting for the claims to be abandoned before taking them over. Eventually, after they had control over most of the claims in the area, when a dedicated worker asked why they dug the black mud since "there is not a culler [gold] in it".  Stevens replied. "This is carbonate of lead. I think there is some silver in it and enough lead to make it pay to mine it." (6)

Needless to say, by 1880 all land within a ten mile area became covered with a patchwork of mining activity and this time the town would set roots and last until today. More than once, mine shafts were lost in the maze of claims only to be found later by another lucky miner. The town boomed and merchants, doctors and hotels sprang up. However, this was still a mining town and the leading cause of death according to the coroner was "maimed and crippled".


Horrace Tabor was the postmaster in 1878 when Leadville was incorporated. He had been part of the Pike's Peak gold rush and had little success as a miner. However, Horrace knew that there was another path to riches in a gold rush and that was to sell the miners the goods and supplies they needed. Tabor would often stake the miners for a share of the profit in the riches they found, if any. One day Horrace staked two German shoemakers with misc. shovels and whisky. The new miners started in on the whisky and proceeded to stumble around on a hillside and eventually started to dig. As drunken luck would have it, the Germans struck paydirt and this spot was the beginning of the Little Pittsburg mine. The Germans and Horrace Tabor made fortunes.

Not being one to put all his eggs in one basket, Horrace invested his returns in other lodes of the area. One of his best investments was the Matchless mine and it would produce enough to make Horrace Tabor one of the town's first multimillionaires.

Success of mines like the Matchless attracted countless other would be miners and scallywags to the frenzy. One day a gravedigger was innocently digging a hole to prepare for a burial when he started bringing up shovels of ore. The cemetary was immediately staked out in a claim and the poor lifeless corpse originally intended for the grave was left in a snow bank frozen until spring.

Meanwhile, Horrace Tabor fancied himself a politcian and went on to become Lt. Governor and even State Senator for a brief time. He divorced one wife and married Elizabeth Doe, a Leadville resident Tabor had known on the sly for some time. The couple proceeded to be a high point in Colorado high society as they partied around and built public monuments and opera houses.

But, life can be sadly funny, and in 1893 a silver panic caused the Tabors to loose their fortunes. Poor 'ol Horrace past away broke in 1899 and his famous last words to his wife "Baby Doe" were "Hang on to the Matchless"

Baby Doe Tabor remained on as one of Leadville's most colorful citizens. The tragic events of her life may have been too much for Baby Doe as she became a reclusive and was seldom seen in town. She lived alone for 30 years in a small cabin next to her charished Matchless mine. Faithful to the end, it was 1935 when her played out body was discovered frozen on the cabin floor.



leadville railroad area map.gif (28617 bytes)All of this activity requires goods to be shipped into and bags of precious ores to be shipped out of the area. Thus, in 1880 the Denver and Rio Grande railroad rolled into town after winning its hard fought battle for the rights to the Royal Gorge with the AT&SF railroad. Next the Denver, South Park and Pacific laid rail to Buena Vista and made a deal with the D&RG to share the line to Leadville along the Arkansas river valley.

In 1884, the DSP&P (later called the South Park and Pacific and owned by the Union Pacific) laid track on its "High Line" via Ten Mile canyon from Denver. This line was later taken over by the Colorado and Southern. The Colorado Midland built to Leadville in its line from Colorado Springs in 1887. Eventually, by 1894, there were 16 passenger trains serving Leadville on a daily basis.

Throughout the early 1900's Leadville grew as more varieties of mineral wealth was removed by more and more ingenuous methods.



Today Leadville has slowed a little from the early mining days. However you can still pay a visit to the past at many museums and historic sites. The Leadville, Colorado & Southern railroad still lives on as a scenic tourist line.

Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the U.S. and is another of the jewels in the crown of the rocky mountains. You could spend years exploring everything in the area.




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