While we were out climbing Colorado mountains and sleeping in beautiful campgrounds littered with glacial lakes last summer, we happened upon the sleepy town of Leadville, Colorado. Certainly an afterthought on our journey, an unplanned adventure, it has become a highpoint in our memories of that trip and a place we plan to revisit. Nestled among the soaring peaks in the Sawatch Range, the highest mountain range in the Colorado Rockies, Leadville is, at 10,152 feel above sea level, the highest incorporated city in United States. It is also one of the most historic towns in Colorado replete with Victorian architecture, historic landmarks and spectacular views.
Leadville’s historic district encompasses 70 square blocks containing six museums, a large selection of specialty shops and galleries as well as an elegant Victorian hotel. In addition to the National Mining Hall of Fame, visitors can tour the Dexter Cabin, a plush 1870’s log cabin built by James Dexter, Colorado’s first millionaire and the Healy House Museum, which provides a glimpse of life in a booming silver mining camp. Owned by Daniel Healy, the Healy House is noted as the most lavish Victorian boarding house in Leadville.
Visitors may also follow “the Route of the Silver Kings”, a driving tour of the 20 square mile historic mining district surrounding Leadville. The tour contains 13 stops at such notable landmarks as mines, ghost towns, power plants and mining camps. A walking tour of the city is also available and leads tourists on a circuit of the main street and residential areas of what is billed as “one of America’s richest, longest lived and bawdiest mining boom towns.”
Not on the tours, but a destination in itself is The Matchless Mine, the foundation of the Tabor fortune. The mine represents a heart-breaking rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Horace Tabor struck silver while married to his first wife, Augusta, billed as the “First Lady” of Leadville. Horace subsequently divorced Augusta to marry his “trophy wife”, Baby Doe, a young divorcee who had recently arrived in town. Augusta died a millionaire, still broken-hearted twelve years after their sensational divorce. Horace and Baby Doe subsequently lost their fortune when the United States repealed the Sherman Silver Act which meant the government was no longer buying silver. Prices bottomed out and no longer covered costs of operating the mines, most of which were lost to foreclosure.
Horace found work doing odd jobs such as shoveling slag from mines on Cripple Creek for $3 a day until he was appointed Denver postmaster a year before his death from appendicitis in 1899. One of the last things he said to Baby Doe was “Hang on to the Matchless”, the mine that had founded his fortune. Baby Doe died 35 years later, penniless and in rags. She was found frozen to death in the small storage shack outside the Matchless Mine in which she had taken up housekeeping when Horace died. She had been living in virtual poverty; the only remnants of her former fortune included several bolts of exquisite cloth, china, a tea service and a few pieces of jewelry. Their story has been the subject of a number of books, a movie and an opera.
Another sight to see in Leadville is the Tabor Opera House. Built in 1879 by Horace Tabor and billed as the largest and best West of the Mississippi, it is available for tours, seminars, weddings and performances. With a seating capacity of 800 in its plush red leather seats, the Tabor has featured such noted performers as Houdini, John Phillips Sousa, Oscar Wilde and boxer Jack Dempsey on its stage.
In addition to its historic significance, Leadville is a quaint and charming town with much to offer a non-historian. There are a multitude of shops offering unique items to take home, such as antiques, mining souvenirs, jewelry and other specialty items. The Delaware Mercantile, located inside the Delaware Hotel, bills itself as Leadville’s shopping emporium for antiques, jewelry, gifts and collectibles, as well as romantic and frontier clothing. The Firehouse General Store boasts unique western gifts, home décor and other souvenir items.
What at first appeared to be a sleepy little town nestled high up in the Rocky Mountains is actually a vacation destination with much to offer. While our trip did not allow us to explore all of the sights of Leadville, this town is on our short list of places we want to revisit. It is easy to enjoy the ambiance of a time long past; a time when gunfights did break out on street corners, the silver kings ruled the city and the pace of life moved a bit more slowly, if only for a few days. For more information about the Leadville area and nearby locations, read more about Colorado camping and things to do in Colorado.