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LEADVILLE'S RICH MINING HERITAGE
 
SUNDAY, AUGUST 27
 
"But there are men for whom the unattainable has special attraction. 
Usually they are not experts; their ambitions and fantasies are strong
enough to brush aside the doubts which more cautious men might have.
Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are
regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad . . ."

 - Walt Unsworth

 

 

This quote can easily apply to Leadville's early years.

Leadville and other little surrounding  towns were established back in the 1860s and '70s after rich deposits of gold and silver were found in the surrounding mountains and gulches in the Mosquito and Sawatch Ranges. The fact that Leadville even exists today after all of its boom-and-bust cycles is a testament to the determination of its citizens, then and now. Many of Colorado's other former mining communities have all but disappeared.

Thousands of people, most of whom had dreams of becoming wealthy, streamed into the area in search of easy money. Many probably realized it wouldn't be as easy as it sounded to extract the ores from the earth, but they were determined to try their luck and new-found skills. (Remember the two German shoe salesmen Horace Tabor grub-staked? They got lots of on-the-job training, but were much luckier than most of their peers.)

These men - and the women who followed them West - were not timid, cautious souls. They were adventure-seekers, driven by aspirations of bettering their lives. Some were probably eccentric, and some were maybe driven mad by their lack of success in making the huge sums of money they predicted would fall into their laps.

But I believe most were hard-working individuals with enough determination and faith in themselves to keep working the numerous mines in the district until they found valuable ore - or died in the effort. It was a very tough life for most of the miners.

This journal entry is a tribute to the history of the mining community around Leadville, a district roughly twenty miles square. The area is full of reminders of its past. There are dilapidated structures, mine tailings (as in the piles below), and rusted mining equipment lying all around the place, all part of today's landscape.

In this photo, you can see Leadville and Turquoise Lake in the valley below the Venir Shaft, an abandoned gold mine on Johnny Hill:

You can see Mt. Massive through this "air conditioned" building at the same location:

Other structures can be seen much closer to town, right on its northern, southern, and eastern limits. This one is at the south end of town and visible from Hwy. 24:

You can't escape Leadville's mining heritage when you visit this town. It's all around you.

I've taken numerous photos of mining relics on drives up to our favorite overlook east of town (where I took the next photo and the first two above above) . . .

. . . and on two runs through the mining areas. One was on the Mineral Belt Trail, an 11.6-mile cycling and hiking loop around Leadville. The other was east up 5th Street to the overlook in the photo above (where Jim was acclimating), then north to Evans Gulch (shown below), and west down 7th Street toward town, where Jim picked me up after I ran about seven miles.

I'll feature some of those abandoned structures and equipment in this essay, and identify the ones I know. (If any of the information is incorrect, please let me know.)

My sources of information are four free visitor publications I picked up in town (the 2006 "Summer Adventure Guide," published by The Herald Democrat, The Mountain Mail, and The Chaffee County Times; the 2006 "Leadville Summer Tracks," published by The Leadville Chronicle; "Leadville/Twiin Lakes Collector's Edition, a 2003 publication of the Leadville Magazine; and the "Route of the Silver Kings" brochure, produced by the Leadville Chamber of Commerce); AAA's Colorado/Utah Tour Book, 2002 edition; the numerous attractive info signs all along the Mineral Belt Trail; and the website   www.leadville.com.

DRIVING TOURS VS. THE MINERAL BELT TRAIL

You can see many of these mining relics from your car if you follow either 5th or 7th Street east toward the Mosquito Range or County Rd. 2 south to California Gulch. The route up 5th Street is highlighted in a free brochure dubbed the Route of the Silver Kings because it passes some of the most prolific silver-producing mines on Fryer Hill, Lee Basin, and Evans Gulch.

Unlike many of the mines near Silverton in the San Juan Range, you don't need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle or Jeep to navigate most of the mining district near Leadville. Jim and I have driven up through the area many times during six visits to Leadville. Although we have 4WD, we've seen plenty of 2WD vehicles on these dirt roads. The one in the photo below is up East 5th Street:

[If you want to keep going over Mosquito Pass, however, you need a rental Jeep, nerves of steel, and more padding on your butt than either of us has! It's a slow, bone-jarring ride.]

Another way to see lots of mines close up - and get a real history lesson at the same time - is to bike, run, or cross-country ski the part of the Mineral Belt Trail that goes through the mining district. That would be about half of the 11.6-mile paved loop, which has parking areas at various sites around the loop.

 

It took me a while to run the entire loop because I kept stopping to take pictures and read and photograph all the signs! I counted forty-five different signs I photographed - such a wealth of information and old photos of the mines and people. The signs identify landmarks and equipment, describe mining processes and how the people lived, and give lots of historical information about the area. I was very impressed with this trail from both a recreational and historical perspective.

There was a cyclist (another LT100 run entrant) stopping to read all the signs, too, and we kept seeing each other as we played leap-frog along the trail. Lots of locals were also out enjoying a walk or bike ride. Some smiled knowingly at me when I had my camera out - an obvious visitor! (They love visitors. Tourism keeps this town alive in the 21st Century.)

1860s - THE GOLD BOOM

Leadville's mining legend began in April, 1860, when a fella named Abe Lee discovered gold in what became known as California Gulch, just south of the current town of Leadville. There was no town in the area at that time.

Lee and his four companions decided to search for gold in creeks on the western side of the Mosquito Range after prospectors had already found it on the eastern side near Fairplay, Central City, and Breckenridge. The valley in which Lee's group discovered a rich site of gold was named for the state of California, where tremendous strikes had been made in the 1850s.

There are three photos of the gulch in this section that I took from the Mineral Belt Trail (two more are farther down the page):

Now get this - 'way before the Age of the Internet, in only three or four months the population of the little mining camp that sprang up in California Gulch, named Oro City ("oro" is Spanish for "gold"), suddenly swelled to a whopping 8,000 people! The town actually moved around a bit so the miners could be closer to their strikes. Interesting.

The photo below, from one of the Mineral Belt signs above the gulch, shows what Oro City looked like in 1875:

Those were some motivated, determined pioneers, anxious to be in on the "ground floor" so they could make the first mining claims or work for someone who'd already found gold. Charles Boettcher and Meyer Guggenheim made their fortunes here. The photo below from one of the Mineral Belt Trail signs shows an old picture of Guggenheim's mine in 1882:

This was the Leadville area's first boom, and it lasted about six years until California Gulch was depleted of gold. The estimate of the value of the gold that was extracted in placer deposits (those found in gravel) and lode deposits (veins of gold embedded in hard rock) in the gulch is about $8 million dollars, the most of any mining camp in Colorado. (Note that these are 1865-era dollars, not 2006-era dollars.)

These photos show what part of the gulch looks like today:

And a close-up:

By the end of the decade, most of the miners had moved on to other areas. Oro City's population was down to only fifty miners. Call it Leadville's first "bust," even though the town wasn't yet named Leadville.

1875 to 1893 - THE SILVER BOOM

The era of "hardrock" mining in Leadville began in 1875 when an astute metallurgist named Alvinius Woods discovered that the heavy black sand that made sluicing gold so difficult was composed of carbonate of lead with an extremely high silver content.

Ah, ha!

His efforts to keep this a secret until he and his closest cronies had bought up as many mining claims as possible didn't  last long. You've already seen how fast word of untold riches can leak out! Soon miners were streaming into the area again, this time sinking shafts deeper and deeper into the valleys and mountainsides east of Leadville in search of silver. (Some were lucky and found more gold, too.)

At the height of the silver boom in the late 1870s through 1893, there were about 135 mines in the district. In sixteen years, over $700 million worth of silver was extracted from these mines. Much of it came from Fryer Hill, called "one of the most lucrative square miles on earth."

It took a lot of men to work those mines. Most came from the East and Midwest. Some came from as far away as Europe. When the town of "Leadville" was officially founded in 1878, it had grown to about 18,000 people. By 1893, the population in Leadville was over 30,000. Thousands more lived in the surrounding communities, mining camps with names like Stumptown, Evansville, Finntown, Johnnytown, Adelaide, and  Graham Park.

 

 

 

 

Why was Leadville called "Leadville" when the silver boom created it? At the time, folks thought lead would be more profitable than silver.

This was the heady period of time when folks like Horace Tabor and JJ Brown made their fortunes. Leadville flourished and earned a reputation as a raucous frontier town as well as a place of culture, an odd mix of roughness and refinement. This 1879 photo of Harrison Avenue, Leadville's main street, was on one of the Mineral Belt Trail signs:

Many relics remain from this period: the famous Matchless Mine, Tabor's first big strike;

the Little Johnny Mine, which JJ Brown managed; the Fortune, Famous, Coronado, Chrysolite, Little Ellen, Little Winnie, Pittsburgh and Little Pittsburgh, St. Louis Tunnel, Resurrection, and scores of other mines. Some of these mines also produced gold, lead, and zinc.

 

 

Even "tailings" can be beautiful:

 

 

 

The silver market crashed in 1893 when the Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the country moved to the gold standard. This move devastated the silver industry in general and Leadville in particular, even though some of the mines were still producing some gold, lead, and zinc. Most of the mines in the district shut down and the miners and many entrepreneurs moved away to find work elsewhere.

IN THE AFTERMATH

But even after this severe "bust," Leadville didn't die. Its citizens were (and still are) determined to keep the town alive.

After the Silver Crash, it was painfully obvious that Leadville would have to diversify not only its mining operations but also broaden its economic base in order for the town to remain viable. Zinc, lead, copper, manganese, bismuth, and (by 1918) molybdenum continued to be mined in place of gold and silver, but fluctuating metal markets made it difficult for mine operators to stay profitable. Most of the mines were closed by the 1950s.

The extraction of molybdenum caused one more little "boomlet" in the Leadville area. By the 1960s, the Climax Mine was the largest underground molybdenum mine in the world, producing half the world's supply of the metal. At its peak, the mine employed over 3,000 workers. "Moly" is used to produce high-strength steel alloys. You can still see many of the open put mines and ponds along Hwy. 91 north of Leadville - and from the Colorado Trail:

The success of this mine was great for Leadville's economy at the time, but once again the town was too reliant on one source of income (and on only one mine this time). When prices took a dive in the 1980s, the mine couldn't make a profit. It closed in 1987. (The good news is that it may re-open soon.) That's when Leadville really made a concerted effort to draw more tourists, its main source of income now.

The last mine near Leadville to close was the Black Cloud Mine in the 1990s. Unless the Climax Mine re-opens, this may be the end of mining for the richest mining district in the American West. It is estimated that the total production of the various ores extracted in the Leadville district since the 1860s has been about $2 billion (with a "B").

Even though no mines are currently operating, the legacy is alive and well in Leadville. The National Mining Hall of Fame, shown below, and the Heritage Museum are full of memorabilia and information, and relics abound near town, making this a very interesting place for both serious and casual history buffs to roam about.

Next up: final thoughts about this summer's adventures, after we get home and settled into "real life."

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil