The history of the town of Leadville is rich, colorful, and
unique. Once the largest mining boomtown in Colorado, it has survived several
periods of boom and bust since its inception in 1878 and is definitely booming
again despite currently having no mines that are open (that may change
While many other 19th Century mining towns were long ago
abandoned and became ghost towns, the determined residents of Leadville switched
gears in the 1980s, diversified their economy, and have kept the highest
incorporated town in America alive and well.
I'll talk more about Leadville's interesting mining
heritage and some of its legendary "characters" in other entries next week. In
this one, I'll focus on what Leadville looks and feels like in the 21st Century.
Today Leadville thrives on tourism. Its rich history,
gorgeous mountain setting, and wealth of recreational sports that are available
year-round lure visitors from all over the world.
It's not a glitzy, snobbish town like Aspen or
Breckenridge, where prices on everything are out of sight. Jim and I just don't
feel comfortable very long in places like that. Leadville is a small town where
you can feel right at home the first day you arrive and a two-week vacation
won't break the bank.
[And if you're really resourceful, an entire summer here is
quite affordable! Think free camping on forest service and BLM land and doing
most of your own cooking . . .]
In its heyday during the silver rush in the late 1870s,
Leadville was a booming town of 30,000 people. Many of the homes built from then
until the early 1900s are Victorian and many still stand. Quite a few have been
lovingly maintained or restored. I'll show you photos of some that have caught
my eye, as well as a few businesses whose architecture is interesting.
Leadville is a designated National Historic District.
Although Leadville's permanent population is only about
one-tenth of what it was at its height in 1878, the town is currently growing
and prospering. More and more new houses are being built around the city limits
and out into the valley as people "buy up" to larger, nicer homes or move into the area. Homes are
still affordable compared to other Colorado communities with similar
recreational opportunities and historical heritage. Young singles/families and
retired couples alike are drawn to Leadville's charms.
Driving tours in the mountains are popular here. So are
walking tours in town. Let's pretend we're on a walking tour now, and I'll show
you some of my favorite buildings and little "slices of life" in Leadville.
If I know the history of a building I include here, I'll
write a little bit about it. There are numerous books and a wealth of information in
libraries and on the internet about the history of Leadville, its buildings, and
its people. If you want to delve into any aspect of this town, I encourage you
to search it out. Internet search engines are amazing!
ALTITUDE WITH ATTITUDE
At 10,152 feet elevation, nearly two miles
high, Leadville takes pride in being the highest incorporated town in America.
You have to love winter to live here year-round, although residents swear "it's
not that bad." For people who enjoy snow sports, it's nirvana. For those of us
who prefer milder temperatures, it's a great place to stay cool in the summer
while we visit on a more temporary basis.
You won't find a heartier welcome than you'll
receive in Leadville. The folks we've met here are friendly, generous, resourceful, hardy, and have a
good sense of humor, like Bill "Sooper" Dooper (Duper?), the first new friend we met on
this trip (he worked with us at Columbine Mine during the bike race):
We were walking down the street on our first
day in town when Bill spied our LT100 shirts and started a conversation with us.
He's a "retired" ultra runner who continues to remain involved with the sport as
a volunteer and pacer.
Leadville natives and newcomers don't "put on
airs," but they appreciate some of the finer things in life. Those "things"
don't have to cost a lot of money. It's a pleasure to walk around the
neighborhoods and find tiny treasures like funky artwork and pretty wildflowers
in the yards. And those Victorian details on the houses can be interesting, too.
The next two houses are both on West 6th
Street. We often drove past both of them on our way into the center of town.
This is a nicely restored Victorian that is
used as both an accounting business and residence:
This remodeled house is also appealing. It's now the Apple Blossom B & B:
As in many cold-weather towns in the United
States and Canada, houses and businesses are often painted bright colors to
contrast with the snow:
The next house (on the left) on West 4th Street, designed/built by
Eugene Robitaille, is called the "House with the Eye:"
That one is a private residence. Two other historical
houses of note that are now museums are the Healy House on top of "Capitol Hill"
and the Tabor Home.
August Meyer, a prominent mining engineer, built the
nine-room Healy House for his family in 1878. In the photo below you can barely
see the Dexter Cabin on the right behind the picket fence:
The Tabor Home, below, was built in 1877 on
Harrison Ave. by Horace Tabor for his first wife, Augusta but moved to its
present location on E. 5th St. two years later because property on Harrison
became too valuable for private residences. I'll recount Tabor's
bust-to-boom-to-bust story in the entry on Leadville's "legends."
On the southern outskirts of town are two notable sites
with historical buildings. I don't know when either was built. One is the old
Tabor General Store, shown below, which I saw when I ran on the Mineral Belt
Trail today. (I'll write more about that excursion next week in the mining
Then there are the picturesque old red school buildings along
Hwy. 91. Someone has painted a crescent moon on the outhouse (that side isn't
shown below). The buildings are fenced in on private property, so I couldn't go
into them. I like this angle best - from the rear - because it shows Mt. Massive
in the background.
Back in town there are quite a few old buildings that are
featured along the official Leadville Walking Tour. The information on the next
few commercial buildings comes from a free 2006 publication of the same name
that is put out by the local newspaper, the Herald Democrat.
Despite its wild history in the late 1800s (e.g., numerous
saloons and brothels), Leadville currently has its share of churches. Here are
two that date from that period of time.
The "Old Church," below, dates from 1889. It was built by
the French architect/builder Eugene Robitaille, who also built the house with
the "eye" that I showed you earlier. This English Gothic structure was
originally the Presbyterian church, but is now managed by the Lake County Civic
Center Association and used for cultural and performing events and by several
St. George Episcopal Church, below, was built in 1880 on W.
4th Street, also designed by Robitaille. Its Gothic influence features
elaborate interior and exterior timbering. The church bell was donated by Horace
Tabor and still rings today.
H.A.W. (Horace) Tabor's influence is all over Leadville.
The most famous piece of architecture bearing his name is the Tabor Opera House at
308 Harrison Ave.,
considered to be the grandest theater between Saint Louis and San Francisco when
it was built back in 1879. It seated 880 inside its luxurious interior with red
plush seats and elegant curtains.
The opera house has hosted many musical shows,
performing artists, and other events over the years, including the Metropolitan
Opera, Chicago Symphony, Sousa's Marine Band, and Houdini.
After Tabor's wealth dissolved in 1893 from the "silver panic," he lost the
opera house. It was subsequently owned by several other individuals and groups.
This is a detail of the entrance:
In 1955 the Tabor Opera House was restored to its boom-era grandeur and remains open to
visitors/performances today. Jim and I have not been inside yet, but I'd like to attend
a performance there someday.
Next to the opera house was a cigar store and a saloon
called Hyman's Place, renowned as the place where John Henry "Doc" Holliday
gambled and worked as a bartender in the early 1880s. He was notorious for
being a gunslinger. I'll go into that story more in the entry on Leadville's
legends. There was also a famous bordello here.
In 1885 Mannie Hyman built the pinkish structure that you
can see two photos above at the same location (314/316 Harrison Ave.) and it
became known as the Hyman Block. It contains a pressed tin ceiling said
to be one of the few left that is complete and in its original condition west of
the Mississippi River. The building is now called Doc Holliday's and features
tours and performances of the Soiled Doves and Molly Brown (adults only!) in the
morning and Doc Holliday/Augusta Tabor in the afternoon (everyone). More about
those folks in the "legends" entry, too.
Nearby (318 Harrison) is a stone marker identifying the
place where David May, founder of May Department Stores, started his business in
a tent. His first building on Harrison Ave. was razed in 1914.
Another historic Tabor building is the Tabor Grand, designed
by architect George E. King, an architect who played a significant role in
Leadville's architecture. Construction began in 1884 but business slowed and the
future of the building was in jeopardy until Horace Tabor made a donation to
complete its construction (and got his name on it!).
Notice the interesting little balcony on the second floor?
The building is Second Empire style with French Mansard roofs, central towers,
roof cresting, segmentally arched windows, and molded surrounds. The hotel had
the most modern of conveniences when it was finished in 1885, including a
The building was on the verge of collapse in the late 20th
century. It was renovated by Marcel Arsenault and the Santa Fe Land Company and
reopened in 1992 with retail shops at street level and subsidized housing on the
Another famous hotel in Leadville is the Delaware, popular
with LT100 cyclists and runners because of its location a block from the start
of the race! I stayed there for a couple of nights the first year (1998) I went
to the race. The rooms are quite elegant, although small by today's standards.
The building had extensive renovations done in 1992.
The Delaware, located at 700 Harrison Ave., was also
designed by George King and built in 1886. It featured steam heat (piped under
Harrison Ave. from the Tabor Grand!), hot- and cold-running water, gas lights,
baths, and closets. The building was owned by Delaware merchants William,
George, and John Callaway and was originally designed to house
stores in the front and elegantly furnished rooms and offices on the second and
The Delaware Hotel proudly advertises its famous guests,
including the Guggenheims, Doc Holliday, and Baby Doe Tabor and its Victorian
rooms decorated with period pieces. Presently on the ground floor is the hotel
lobby, bar, restaurant, and gift shop.
Another interesting corner building constructed in 1893 is
called the Iron Building in honor of the ore that was important to the town's
recovery from the silver panic. There is iron in the building's trim. The Iron
Building, shown below, currently houses the Book Mine (a nice bookstore) and
other retail establishments.
The Manville and McCarthy Hardware store was built in 1881
and became known as Western Hardware in 1919. That name is still on the
building, although since 1990 it has housed an antique gift shop. It has many of
its original features inside. Jim and I have shopped here several times - lots
of interesting antiques!
Another store we like is Bill's Sport Shop, built in 1895.
It was originally the Anheuser-Busch Building and housed a saloon, offices, and
the U.S. Land Office.
There were dozens of saloons in Leadville during its
heyday. One of the originals, the Board of Trade, opened in the Clipper Building
in 1879. This is another building designed by architect King. The name was
changed to the Silver Dollar Saloon in 1935:
Nicknamed "The Dollar," it is a popular
dining establishment with an Irish flare. Parts of its original tile floor
remain intact, and it boasts an ornate bar and rare diamond-dust mirrors.
I don't know the history behind the Golden Burro, but
thought its burro theme fits Leadville quite well. Burros were important beasts
of burden in the old mining days. I've seen quite a few old photos of burros
laden with mining supplies and building materials. This restaurant's name is a
nice tribute acknowledging how much the animals contributed to the early success of the
Perhaps the greatest architectural tribute to
Leadville's mining history is the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, also
designed by George King. Built in the late 1890s, it houses mineral collections
from around the world, a mock gold mine, a gift shop, and a considerable amount
of historical mining data.
The white marble sculpture on the far right was added
later. Called "Mining the Pulse of Civilization," it was sculpted by Greg
I hope you've enjoyed this photographic tour of Leadville
and will come enjoy the town someday yourself.
Next up: countdown to the Leadville Trail 100-miler.
Oh, my, where did the time go??