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Leadville Colorado - A Capsule History
By Jerry Clark

Leadville was the greatest of all the Colorado mining regions. Mining in the area began in 1859 and continues today. The history of Leadville is a series of boom and bust periods following the fortunes of the mining industry.

Early Placer Mining

Placer mining for gold was started in California Gulch in 1859. By 1861 5,000 prospectors covered the area and the settlement of Oro City was established. The placer deposits quickly played out and even though the Printer Boy Mine was successfully opened in 1868, by the 1870's the area was almost deserted. In 1878 a metallurgist named Alvinius Woods and his partner William Stevens visited the area and discovered that the local sands which had made sluicing gold so difficult were composed of carbonate of lead with an extremely high silver content. The mother lode was discovered on the side of Iron Hill. This discovery led to the second boom in the area, the silver rush would lead to the founding of Leadville.

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Leadville, Colorado
Leadville, Colorado

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The Silver Cord Mine
Leadville, Colorado
The north end of
Carbonate Hill
Leadville, Colorado

The Silver Boom

Thousands were drawn to the area by the discovery of silver in the mid 1870's. As a result of this explosive growth, the city of Leadville was incorporated in January 1878. At an elevation of 10,200 feet, it is the highest incorporated city in the country. By the end of 1879 the population in Leadville reached 18,000. By 1893 the estimated population reached 60,000. This was the period when great fortunes were made and lost throughout the district.

By 1881 there were 14 smelters and reduction plants operating in the Leadville district. Some of the leading mining properties in the district included the Matchless, Morning Star, Iron Silver, Catalpa, Chrysolite, and Little Pittsburgh. Silver production reached a peak of over $11,000,000 in 1880, leveled out at about $10,000,00 for a number of years and then began to decline.

The history of Leadville is rich with stories of various characters. Some of these tales have become legends; how much truth is in them is now difficult to tell.

Horace Tabor became one of the richest men in the world and took as his second wife the beautiful Baby Doe Tabor. He died a pauper. On his deathbed Tabor instructed Baby Doe to "Hang on to the Matchless. It will make millions." It didn't, and Baby Doe froze to death in the mine building years later, a penniless widow.

Molly Brown, wife of John Brown, the superintendent of the Little Jonny Mine, accidentally burned hundreds of thousands of dollars in the stove where he had hidden them. After this episode it was claimed Johnny went out and discovered another mine. Molly went on to fame after her voyage on the Titanic as the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She never confirmed or denied the tale of the burned money.

Tabor was originally a shopkeeper in Leadville who grubstaked two out of luck prospectors. They discovered the Little Pittsburgh Mine. It was capitalized after one year for $20 million.

Tabor supposedly bought a mine from another developer who thought it was worthless. The seller had salted the mine with good ore to make it appear a worthwhile investment. Tabor sank the mineshaft 25 feet deeper and discovered a tremendous vein. Tabor named it the Chrysolite Mine.

A trio of prospectors were accused of holding up stagecoaches in the area in 1879. Their names were Jesse James and Bob and Charley Ford.

One prospector is said to have asked for directions to the diggings. He was told to "go dig under that tree." He did, and struck it rich.

When the First Avenue Presbyterian Church was being built it was surrounded by armed guards to protect the property from claim jumpers.

Alva Adams made a fortune with the Blind Tom mine and later became governor of Colorado.

The Ice Palace, constructed entirely of ice blocks 8 feet thick, covered 5 acres during the winter of 1895. It contained huge ice statues, and was the scene of various balls and special events. In the spring it all melted.

The demonetization of silver in 1893 resulted in the closing of most of the mines around Leadville. All but one of the smelters closed, but the survivor became the great Arkansas Valley Smelter, the largest smelter in Colorado, which operated into the 1960's. As the local economy declined in the wake of the Silver Panic, significant gold deposits were discovered in the eastern portion of the district. This led to the third boom in Leadville's history.

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Grant Smelter
Robert E. Lee Mine

The Gold Boom

The discovery of rich gold deposits in the area reinvigorated the Leadville district. The Ibex Mining Company became a leader in the district, acquiring many of the older silver workings and reopening them. The lead and zinc ores pulled from the mines contained significant amounts of manganese and bismuth in addition to gold. This broader base of production allowed the district to maintain a reasonable level of prosperity until the Great Depression, when low world metal prices, increasing costs of production and limited capital resources gradually closed down most of the operations.

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Miners at the Carbonate Mine
Black Smith Shop

The Molybdenum Boom

During the early twentieth century, a vast deposit of molybdenum was discovered in Climax, 14 miles northeast of Leadville. This metal is used in the production of modern high strength steel alloys. The Climax Molybdenum Company created what was to become one of the largest open pit mines in the world to extract the ore from Bartlett Mountain. By the 1940's annual production at the mine was over $13,000,000.

Leadville Yards -- (Image 00106) (71k) Denver and Rio Grande -  Park City up Stray Horse Gulch - 2 miles east of Leadville - 1880 (Image 00276) (221k)
D&RG locomotive
in the Leadville Yards
(m00106) (71k)
Park City located in
Stray Horse Gulch

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The Railroads of Leadville

The size and nature of the Leadville district economy from the 1870's through the 1920's demanded significant rail connections to fully exploit the workings. In fact, the size of the economy was so great it allowed three railroads to operate in the district for over 30 years. Of all the Colorado mining regions, only the Cripple Creek and Victor district was ever served by this many lines, and for a considerably shorter period. Using a joint trackage agreement from Buena Vista, the narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande and the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroads reached Leadville in 1880. The joint trackage agreement would last only a few years, forcing the DSP&P to build its High Line from Breckenridge over Fremont Pass to maintain access to Leadville. While the narrow gauge lines fought over their trackage, the standard gauge Colorado Midland entered Leadville in 1887. Over the next 30 years the district would be filled with hundreds of miles of narrow gauge and standard gauge track to service the mines and smelters.

In addition to the ore moved within the district, the Leadville railroads moved thousands of cars of ore from the district to other Colorado smelters. Freight traffic included merchandise, mining supplies, coal for fuel, and building materials. Passenger traffic into and out of the district was significant in an era when the only other means of reaching Leadville was by stagecoach.

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Joint DSP&P and D&RG trackage between Leadville and Buena Vista
W.H. Jackson Photo
"Gathering of the Vigilantes"
Little Pittsburg Mine Office
-June 11, 1880-

The Denver South Park and Pacific

The Denver South Park and Pacific arrived in Leadville in 1880 on Denver and Rio Grande trackage from Buena Vista. After the collapse of the Joint Operating Agreement in 1882, the railroad built the famous High Line over Boreas Pass to Breckenridge, then down Tenmile Creek to Fremont Pass to enter the Leadville district from the north. After completion of the High Line the depot at Leadville was located at Milepost 151.19.

One of the great mysteries of early Colorado railroading is why the South Park, then under control of the Union Pacific, chose to construct the High Line at all, rather than extend the existing line from Buena Vista up the relatively flat Arkansas River Valley to Leadville. A number of theories have been advanced; none are totally conclusive.

The Rio Grande had prior survey rights on the route between Buena Vista and Leadville. The Tripartite Agreement between the Rio Grande, Santa Fe and Union Pacific recognized the D&RG rights to the route. Although the UP takeover of the DSP&P occurred after the signing of the Tripartite Agreement in 1880, a legal argument could be made in 1882 that the terms of the Tripartite Agreement applied to the South Park. During the period of the construction of the Colorado Midland up the Arkansas Valley from Buena Vista to Leadville, the Midland was not bound by the terms of the Agreement. The Midland merely had to avoid the grade of the Rio Grande. The evidence of how the Midland managed this can still be seen today north of Buena Vista.

It is likely that a combination of factors led to the UP decision to construct the High Line. Certainly avoidance of potentially protracted legal action with the Denver and Rio Grande was one. Unrealistically low construction and operation cost estimates for a northern approach were another. In 1882 the UP was considering 2 possible routes into Leadville; the High Line from Breckenridge or a connection with the Colorado Central from above Georgetown over Loveland Pass and down the Snake River. Finally, either of the routes considered by the UP were significantly shorter in distance from Denver than the Rio Grande route. Apparently the large differences in grade, curvature and altitude, with their effect on operating costs versus the D&RG route, was not considered by the Union Pacific. The true effects of high country winters on operations were never acknowledged by any of these early railroads.

The South Park line to Breckenridge over Boreas Pass was completed on September 1, 1882. By December, the line had reached Dillon. The Leadville route branched off at Dickey, 2.7 miles south of Dillon. Construction was begun on August 3, 1883. Construction was delayed by legal wrangling over the South Park crossing of the Rio Grande right of way in Kokomo. As a temporary measure, the South Park constructed a switchback to avoid the Rio Grande grade. The switchback was used until December 1884 when the South Park realigned its grade and constructed two trestles over the Rio Grande track, eliminating the need for the switchback.

Regular traffic was begun over the High Line in September, 1884. The South Park route to Denver was 151 miles long versus 171 miles via Buena Vista. In comparison, the Rio Grande route from Denver through Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Salida was 277 miles long.

The South Park had the following facilities in place at Leadville in 1886:
Passenger Depot 15 x 27 feet with 20 x 28 addition
Freight House 42 x 100 feet
Roundhouse 8 stall 60 x 126 feet
Cast Iron Turntable 50 foot diameter
Coal Bin 9 pockets, 246 feet long including trestle
Water Tank 50,000 gallons
Section House 2 story wood frame
Scale House 32 feet long
Yard Trackage 12,840 feet in 1889
Stock Pens

The South Park and its successors, notably the Colorado and Southern, would remain in Leadville for over 100 years. The Leadville-Climax branch was the last narrow gauge operation on the C&S. Conversion to standard gauge was completed in 1943, with the last narrow gauge consist running on August 26, 1943 over dual gauge track.

The Denver & Rio Grande

General William Jackson Palmer, president of the Rio Grande, visited Leadville in 1877 to see if the traffic in the region merited an extension of the line. During this visit he received a pledge from the Harrison Reduction Works for shipment of 25 to 75 tons of ore daily. David Dodge of the Rio Grande apparently believed this contract alone would pay for the building of the line into the district.

The Rio Grande reached Leadville July 22, 1880, running north from Buena vista up the valley of the Arkansas River. The later Ibex branch out of Leadville would become the highest point on the Rio Grande at 11,200 feet and featured numerous switchbacks to access the mines. In response to the threat from the Colorado Midland, the Rio Grande added a third rail to its Pueblo to Leadville line.

Documentation on the Rio Grande facilities in Leadville has been harder to locate than for the South Park and the Midland. Based on a review of maps of the area, by 1905 the following facilities were in place:
Passenger depot
Classification yard
Extensive trackage around the Arkansas Valley Smelter
Passenger depot at Ibex

The Colorado Midland

While the Colorado Midland was the last railroad to reach Leadville in 1887, it was the first standard gauge line in the district. Leadville was a division point on the CM, located at Milepost 137.3. Colorado Midland facilities at Leadville included the following:
Two-story Passenger Depot 30 x 197 feet
Freight House 32 x 200 feet
Roundhouse 8 stalls with attached 14 x 50 foot office
Wrought-Iron Turntable 60 foot diameter
Coal Chute 12 pocket trestle type
Sandhouse 18 x 40 feet
Oil House 16 x 20 feet
Blacksmith Shop 32 x 50 feet
Car Repair Shed 20 x 53 feet
Track Scales
Water Stand Pipe
Classification Yard Capacity over 200 cars

The Midland served the district until 1918 when the railroad ceased operations. The entire Midland plant in Leadville was torn up for scrap in 1921.

Early Images of Leadville, Colorado

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Chestnut Street
Chestnut Street

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Chestnut Street
from Harrison
Chestnut Street

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Leadville Street Scene
Chestnut Street

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Clarendon Hotel
Tabor Opera house
Chestnut Street
-March 1884-

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Harrison Avenue
Harrison Avenue

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Clarendon Hotel

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Home in Leadville
State Street

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Leadville Miner's Strike
Overview of Leadville

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Robert E. Lee Mine
Little Pittsburgh Mine

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Main Street Leadville
Main Street Leadville

Carbonate Hill - 1883
Carbonate Hill
D&RG Depot - Leadville Colorado

s00461.jpg - 68291 Bytes Tabor Opera House - 1890
Lillie Langtry - "The Jersey Lilly"
Ms. Langtry performed at the Tabor Opera House in 1883
Tabor Opera House


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