Welcome to the Old West! Leadville, Colorado, may well be the West’s most authentic mining town, with a vivid Colorado heritage of wild contrasts: mining wealth and high-falutin’ residents, to poverty and ne’er-do-wells, and incredible luck to devastating misfortune. There’s so much to do see and do, April has been designated Historic Leadville Month. Spring is a great time to experience Leadville history for yourself. It’s pretty quiet up here this time of year! Explore at your own pace and feel like you’ve gotten away from it all—even though we’re less than two hours from Denver and Colorado Springs.
Here are six ways to enjoy Historic Leadville Month. Keep reading for highlights of colorful past.
1. Hike, bike, snowshoe or cross-country ski the Mineral Belt Trail, depending on the weather. It’s a paved, 11-6-mile trail that loops through the city and the historic mining district. The views are spectacular, and you can stop at some of Leadville’s most historic sites along the way. There are numerous signs along the trail that explain the significance of sites.
2. Tour our National Historic Landmark District of Victorian Architecture, which covers more than 70 blocks and includes the largest opera house west of the Mississippi, the saloon visited by Oscar Wilde and two historic 1879 churches. Pick up a map the visitor’s center at 809 Harrison Avenue.
3. Visit the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a real showcase of American mining, filled with displays, mine replicas, a model train and gem rooms. You’ll want to spend a few hours here, so set aside a morning or an afternoon.
4. Explore the 20-square-mile east-side historic mining district. There are trails for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snow biking and Nordic skiing. You can even hike on some of the groomed trails. Maps are available at the visitor center. If you’re a mountain biker, the Cloud City Wheeler’s East Side Epic winter mountain bike race is April 18!
5. Visit the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2014. You can tour the hatchery for free and hike or snowshoe the one-mile Evergreen Nature Trail, with signage that points out the flora and fauna, and access the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
6. Pay tribute at Camp Hale, the training site for the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. There are interpretive signs at Camp Hale and at the entrance to Ski Cooper. U.S. Highway 24, from Leadville to Minturn, has been designated as The 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway and is on the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway.
Leadville’s Colorful History
It started back in 1860, when gold was discovered in California Gulch. Eight thousand prospectors soon arrived, and within five years, more than $4 million in gold was found using sluice boxes and pan — more than at any other site in Colorado at the time.
The gold played out, but was quickly followed by the silver boom. 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.
Horace Tabor, who owned a general mercantile store with his first wife Augusta, invested in mining with incredible success. He built and opened the lavish Tabor Opera House, banks and the Tabor Grand Hotel. Along the way, he infamously left his wife and married the young “Baby Doe.” He rose from a local to state to national political figure, built a mansion in Denver and lived a very wealthy lifestyle.
His Tabor Opera House presented an astounding variety of talent. The world-famous magician Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, the British wit Oscar Wilde, the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and many wonderful operatic performers “trod the boards” of the Tabor.
In its heyday Leadville was one of the most sophisticated and modern cities in the world, and was even a contender to become Colorado’s state capitol.
Lots of famous figures lived in or visited Leadville. Margaret “Molly” Brown arrived as a teenager in the early 1880s, working as a seamstress in a dry goods store. She married J.J. Brown and became the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, survivor of the Titanic. Marshal Martin Duggan, Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, “Chicken Bill” Lovell, “Broken Nose” Scotty, “Big Nose” Kate and Soapy Smith are all part of Leadville’s colorful cast of characters. Teddy Roosevelt also paid visits to Leadville, and Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the first train to Leadville.
Gunslinger-gambler-dentist Doc Holliday was one of the most legendary visitors to Leadville. Conflicting accounts of his story abound, but records indicate that he shot and wounded Bill Allen in August 1884; the last man on record shot by Holliday.
Mining was not the only interest that the nation had in Leadville. 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, with free tours and access to trails. Families love the new picnic shelter and playground at this historic site.
The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act spelled ruin for Horace Tabor and more. Local businessmen decided to combat the downturn of the economy by building the incredible Ice Palace during the winter of 1895-1896. The magnitude and ambition of this project is legion: it required 5,000 tons of ice to be cut from the nearby lakes and it 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 as well.
Mining continued, with zinc, lead and copper. The industry’s last great resurgence came in 1918 with the opening of the massive Climax Molybdenum Mine north of Leadville, now once again in operation, supplying the world with molybdenum for manufacturing.
In 1942, Camp Hale was established 17 miles north of Leadville as a training site for ski troopers for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. During training, Leadville was a slice of civility for troops on leave. After World War II, many of these ski troopers returned to the state and were instrumental in the development of the Colorado ski industry. Following the war, Ski Cooper, pioneered by these soldiers, opened to the public as a family-friendly ski area for locals and visitors alike.
Just 15 minutes from Leadville lies the historic village of Twin Lakes, a busy mountain transportation hub between Aspen and Leadville during the gold rush days with its hotel, general store, blacksmith shop and schoolhouse. The Interlaken Resort originally opened in 1897 and eventually grew into a 100-acre complex that included a lodge, cabin, dance pavilion, servants’ quarters, stable and rare hexagonal outhouse! To get there, take a boat tour across the lake, or a hike or snowshoe trek around the lake.
Visit again this summer!
There are even more ways to relive our history during the summer months. In addition to the ideas listed above, you can visit eight museums, take guided and self-guided tours, ride the train, go underground on a hard rock mine tour and see a performance at the Tabor Opera House. And with our affordable prices, you can stay for awhile and enjoy it all!