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Leadville’s mining history began in 1860 with the discovery of gold south of town. Roughly 8,000 prospectors arrived in “ Oro City ,” a makeshift town of tents and cabins. During the next five years, more than $4 million worth of gold was discovered using sluice and pan — more than at any other Colorado site. Within five years, however, the gold was playing out. The next boom would be silver. By 1880, Leadville had more than 30,000 residents, innumerable stores, hotels, boarding houses and, of course, more than 100 saloons, dance halls, gambling joints and brothels. By the late 1880s, the Colorado and Southern High Line, a narrow gauge railroad, was working the mineral belt.
Along with the rough life of the town, an upper class developed alongside the silver boom. Horace Tabor, who owned a general mercantile store with his wife Augusta, invested in mining with incredible success. Making millions from silver mining, he built and opened the famous Opera House in 1879, as well as the Bank of Leadville and Tabor Grand Hotel. Along the way, he infamously left his wife and married the young “Baby Doe.” He rose from local to state to national political figure, built a mansion in Denver and lived a wealthy lifestyle.
His Tabor Opera House presented impressive talent. The world-famous magician Harry Houdini, John Phillip Sousa, the British wit Oscar Wilde, the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and wonderful operatic performers “trod the boards” of The Tabor during its heyday.
The years 1878 and 1879 marked the arrival of two more future millionaires. David May opened his auction house and clothing store, later buying out his biggest competitor. The company eventually became the nationwide May D&F. Charles Boettcher opened a thriving hardware business, later moving to Denver where he became one of its most successful businessmen and benefactors. Other brilliant financial careers began in Leadville, including the Guggenheims, Marshall Fields, W.B. Daniels, and James V. Dexter.
Molly Brown arrived as a teenager in the early 1880s, working as a seamstress in a dry goods store. She eventually married J.J. Brown, and became the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, “Chicken Bill” Lovell, “Broken Nose” Scotty and Soapy Smith are all part of Leadville’s colorful past. Teddy Roosevelt also visited Leadville.
Of course, Doc Holliday’s stay in Leadville is one of the most infamous. It was marked by ill health, tuberculosis and drinking. Conflicting accounts of his story abound, but the records indicate that he shot and wounded Bill Allen in August 1884. Supposedly penniless, he was nonetheless released on a bail of $8,000, raised by his wealthy friends, and in March 1885, was acquitted and released. Allen was the last man on record shot by Holliday.
In 1889, Congress established a National Fish Hatchery on the east side of Mt. Massive . It’s now the oldest fish hatchery west of the Mississippi River .
In 1893, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act spelled ruin for Horace Tabor and many others. Baby Doe froze to death almost 40 years later in her one room shack at the Matchless Mine. Mining for other minerals continued, but the silver boom was over.
Local businessmen decided to combat the downturn by building an Ice Palace during the winter of 1895-1896. Requiring 5,000 tons of ice from nearby lakes, the Ice Palace featured life-sized sculptures of prospectors and burros, a skating rink and a “gallery of commerce” with frozen produce, beer and more. A Crystal Carnival, with parade and fireworks, lit up the town and the throngs who traveled by train from Denver and around the country. The Ice Palace melted in the spring of 1896, a glorious end to a fascinating era.
Mining continued, with zinc, lead and copper. But its last great resurgence came in 1918 with the opening of the massive Climax Molybdenum Mine north of Leadville. It employed more than 3,000 workers, and supplied half of the world’s molybdenum. The mine is scheduled to reopen in 2009.
In 1941, Minnie Dole approached the United States Army with the need to train troops for winter survival and skiing. The site for Camp Hale , at 9,300 feet altitude, 17 miles north of Leadville, was chosen for the newly established Tenth Mountain Division.
In 1945, after two years of rigorous training, the Tenth Mountain Division was ordered to Italy to spearhead an advance of the U.S. Army. In a series of actions, the Tenth Mountain Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Apennines and secured the Po River Valley to play a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy .
By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, 992 ski troopers had lost their lives and 4,000 were wounded: the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division in the Mediterranean . A monument has been placed at the entrance to Ski Cooper in memory of the soldiers killed in action in Italy.
Today, Leadville has preserved an astounding amount of its history. Seventy square blocks have been designated a National Historic Landmark of Victorian Architecture, featuring more than fifty nineteenth-century buildings. Other historic attractions include a twenty-square-mile historic mining district, an historic railroad, more museums than any town in Colorado , and a yearly Boom Days event in August to celebrate it all.
Mt. Elbert , Colorado ’s highest peak, looks down on a revitalized town, known for its abundant outdoor activities, authentic small-town atmosphere and rich history. Leadville booms again.