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A Quick History of Leadville

Families traveling in Colorado should known that Leadville's heart lies with mining. Tourism isn't its first choice as a way to make a living.

And that's what makes a family vacation in Leadville an outstanding experience.

This is not fancy Colorado Theme Park. Its just a gritty, unpretentious town with outstanding scenery, fantastic outdoor recreational opportunities, one national-level museum, and a rich history worth climbing out of your car and exploring.

Leadville may not be the beauty it was when mining swept it off its feet, and it'll never love tourists as much. But as a tourist, it's easy to become smitten with the old girl, and enjoy a wonderful, if gritty vacation there.

Photo: Ghosts of old mines still haunt the fabulously rich mining district above Leadville, Colorado

Photo: Boating on Turquoise Lake, near Leadville, Colorado, is a popular recreational activity with families.

Photo: The ghosts of fabulously rich mines crumble in the hills above Leadville, Colorado. A self-guided tour, "The Route of the Silver Kings" helps families learn about how folks like Marshall Field of Chicago and the Guggenheim Family made their cash.
The Ute folks who went hiking, fishing, and hunting in the upper Arkansas River Valley in the summer of 1859 weren’t all that interested in subterranean minerals laying quietly beneath the forests and late-melting snows. But, down on the edge of the mountains, in what was to become Denver, some guys were getting awfully hot under the collar.

Gold had been discovered in the streams there, and prospectors figured the gold must have washed downstream from the hills above. And if the high country above Denver had gold, it stood to reason that the rest of the Colorado mountains did, too.

Spying Gold

By April of 1860, a group of fellows had made their way to the northern reaches of the Arkansas River Valley. Upon spying some gold flakes and a few nuggets while poking around in a stream, a prospector named Abe Lee was said to exclaim that he had discovered all of California in his pan. The name California Gulch stuck, and before long, nearly 5,000 folks had joined Abe and his buddies in the valley.

They gathered the gold in the streams by placer mining. They hosed the dirt off the hillside, then they funneled the muddy slurry into sluice boxes. These long, narrow, wooden boxes channeled the slurry over wooden slats, or riffles, nailed to the bottom of the boxes. The heavy mud would get caught behind the wooden slats, while the water washed the lighter dirt away. After enough water and shaking of the sluice boxes, only the heaviest dirt (pieces of gold) would be left behind the slats for the miners to gather up.

Played Out Early

In the summer of 1861, the placers began to play out, and water shortages complicated matters. Besides that, heavy black sand kept building up in the sluice boxes, making it hard to separate the gold. Mining started to dwindle in the area.

By 1865, the place was nearly a ghost town, with abandoned log cabins scattered here and there. Fewer than 500 folks remained in “Oro City” as the place had been named, and a few small veins on Printer Boy Hill were all that kept mining gasping along in the area.

On the Other Hand . . .

The California Gulch mines were located in the foothills of the Mosquito Range of mountains. Just on the other side of the giant peaks, in Park County, miners had been pulling high-grade silver ore from the flanks of Mt Bross.

One of these Mt. Bross miners, William H. Stevens, felt there was still promise in the ground around California Gulch. He and his colleagues, Alvinus B. Wood and Sullivan D. Breece continued to placer mine the area. In 1874, they attracted investors and built a ditch from the Arkansas River to provide water and they quietly took over old claims as they expired.

Assays of the black sands confirmed their suspicions of silver in the ore, and they staked a series of claims. They were able to ship high-grade silver ore at a profit, in spite of difficult and expensive conditions.

Catching on

When folks finally caught on to what Stevens, Wood, and Breece were doing, claims were filed fast and furiously, and by 1878, Leadville was incorporated as a city and its silver mining boom was under way.

Within a year, the wealth being pulled from the mines supported four banks, ten dry goods stores, 31 restaurants, 120 saloons, 19 beer halls, 118 gambling houses and private clubs, and four churches. Over 70 lawyers and law firms tried to keep things sorted out for their clients.

A Popular Place

In 1880, the Denver & Rio Grand railroad arrived in Leadville, and with it tons of freight and thousands of people. The census for that year counted 14,820 people, many of whom were or became famous, a good number were infamous. The trains that steamed out of Leadville hauled silver and gold bullion, smelted right there in Leadville. The riches attracted more fortune seekers, and Leadville’s boom was like a fifteen-year-long party.

The Party’s Over

When the price of silver crashed in 1893, it was as if the neighbors had called the cops who came in and sent everyone home. Mines closed and people lost their jobs. By the end of the century, seven years later, the gold production of Leadville helped maintain the population, but the manic thrill of the boom years had died.

Ups and Downs

The hills around Leadville are rich in other minerals, and the town experienced wealthier periods supported by zinc, lead, iron, and molybdenum. However, each time the market for those minerals softened, mines closed and the town’s economy suffered.

During World War II, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, quartered at Camp Hale just over Tennessee Pass from Leadville, patronized the stores and saloons of the town, providing income. But the end of the war took the soldiers home and lower prices for metals (again).

Finding Authentic Small Town Colorado in Leadville

Today, Leadville’s population hovers around 2,700 people, a long way from the nearly 15,000 who lived there in the late 1880s. And although the town’s heart pines for mining, lately only whispers and rumors tease at its return.

A gorgeous natural setting, abundant outdoor activities, and an incredibly fascinating history combine to make this a great destination for a family vacation. But Leadville is having a hard time with tourism.

Here you won’t find highbrow entertainment or the Colorado-Theme-Park atmosphere prevalent in so many Victorian era mountain towns. Leadville’s first great love was mining, and its long history is interwoven with mining, and as gritty as mining is, the town is finding it hard to get over the relationship. Tourism will have do, but it just isn’t the same.

And that’s what makes visiting Leadville such an authentic experience. The town isn’t putting on a show for you. In Leadville, the historic old mining town that you see is about as real a small-town Colorado experience as you can get.

Related Links:

Leadville - Overview

Hiking with Kids
Camping in Colorado