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
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
In this photo, you can see Leadville and Turquoise Lake
in the valley below the Venir Shaft, an abandoned gold mine on Johnny
You can see Mt. Massive through this "air conditioned" building at the same
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
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
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
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
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
1875 to 1893 - THE SILVER
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.
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
Why was Leadville called "Leadville" when the silver
boom created it? At the time, folks thought lead would be more profitable
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
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
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."