Lofty, Laid-Back Leadville

Leadville, at nearly 2 miles above sea level, is one of Colorado’s loftiest living mineral towns. The community of 2,800 sits at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet and lies near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

Opulent Aspen rises 29 Learjet miles to the west. Trendy Breckenridge sits even closer toward the northeast. All three were once precious-metal mining communities, but unlike its compatriots, Leadville missed out on the Holy Rolex Revival. The town never found salvation as a caviar and crumpets ski center. Instead, it remains a peanut butter burg, sandwiched in sourdough mountains.

Once one of the grandest boomtowns in Colorado, Leadville’s mines spewed out millions in gold, silver and finally molybdenum. The profits enriched investors, provided jobs and attracted a Who’s Who of western celebrities. Meyer Guggenheim made a fortune in mining and smelting here. Susan B. Anthony promoted women’s suffrage in the town’s saloons, and Doc Holliday killed his last man on its streets. Even the Titanic’s “Unsinkable Molly Brown” once called Leadville home.

Century-old storefronts line Harrison Avenue, Leadville’s main street. Merchants range from Radio Shack to eateries more likely to serve chicken fried steak than chicken cordon bleu. Neither art galleries nor designer boutiques sully the small-town atmosphere. There isn’t even a Starbucks.

There is, however, a railroad, and it offers 21-mile out-and-back trips up the Arkansas Valley. The rails provide an enticing opportunity to mine the area’s history and pan for leaves of gold.

“Hello and welcome to the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad,” a voice booms over loudspeakers. “Our trip today is going to take 2½ hours, and we’ll be rising another thousand feet in elevation.”

We depart Leadville in a sensory overload. Wheels rumble to a cacophony of clacks, clanks, squeals, squeaks and scrapes. The air smells of grease and creosote. Yellow leaves dance trackside, begging to be touched.

This train plies normally spaced rails and is propelled by a modern diesel-electric locomotive. Lacking a turnaround at track’s end, the train backs up the mountainside in the outbound direction. An employee sits in the caboose and watches the tracks in front.

Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad passengers ride past autumn gold.

“If I see a problem far enough ahead, I radio the engineer so he can deal with it,” she says. “If there’s an emergency, I can apply the air brakes myself.”

Our route, called the High Line, once connected Leadville to Denver. As mineral lodes played out, the need for freight hauling diminished. Most mountain tracks became scrap metal. By the 1930s, only the section connecting Leadville to the Climax molybdenum mine on Fremont Pass remained. After it closed, Stephanie and Kenneth Olsen bought the route and equipment for $10. Their tourist-toting operation began in 1988.

Trees part as we get higher, and I look down to where the distant highway passes sapphire beaver ponds ringed in 14-carat willows. Beyond, aspen broaches bejewel slopes gowned in conservative conifers. I sit in an open car, covered on the top and windowless on the sides. The thin air feels cool and the sun warm. It’s a tactile version of sweet and sour.

The train stops near Fremont Pass. Beyond lies the huge Climax mine, which once produced much of the world’s molybdenum, a steel-toughening alloy. In one of the largest operations of its kind in North America, a mountain has been blasted and ground away. Mining here ceased in the mid-80s.

Conductor Liz Herron says it was tough on the town when Climax shut down. Severed from its payroll, Leadville and its residents have had to search for alternative sources of income. Although promoting tourism seems natural, she and her neighbors want to see it done in a way that preserves the community’s authenticity and lifestyle.

“I pray we don’t become another Breckenridge,” she says, her nose curling with mention of the condo-clad ski town across the Continental Divide.

A rider pedals the Mineral Belt Trail.

One of Leadville’s more energetic tourism efforts has been the Mineral Belt Trail. This 12½-mile paved loop follows old railroad grades through outlying mining camps. I rent a bicycle and give the trail a try.

Lodgepole pine trees border the trail’s blacktop, making the air smell like Christmas. Ahead, the hillsides wear more green and gold than fans at a Packers rally. Huffing, puffing, panting and gulping, I shift gears from low to lower trying to find a pace where I can keep my breath and still stay erect. After a half-hour ride, the Matchless Mine provides an appealing pedaling break.

Horace Tabor moved to Leadville and in 1878 became the town’s first mayor. Later that year he grubstaked two prospectors who hit a rich silver lode. With his share, the investor bought other mines, including the unmatched Matchless. Small buildings and a head frame mark the property, which lies 100 yards off the trail.

A caretaker leads a small group around the property. She shows us a model of the seven-story-deep operation and lets us peer down the mine shaft where lamp light falls into dank darkness.

“From a pulley atop the head frame,” the guide explains, “they would lower the bucket down. One man would ride inside and hold the cable. Two men would stand on the outside edges and hang on for dear life. They lowered mules by their bellies. The animals never came back up. When they died, they were buried underground.”

Tabor divorced his first wife to marry a trophy bride whose cuteness earned her the nickname “Baby Doe.” Living in lavish luxury, the pair squandered a fortune on everything from opera houses to exotic clothing. The silver crash of 1893 left the high-flying Tabors nearly penniless. After her husband’s death in 1899, a reclusive Baby Doe continued to reside at the mine. In 1935, she was discovered here, frozen to death.

The Silver Crash nearly killed Leadville. Mines closed. Empty houses became firewood. Prohibition offered some relief when bootleggers discovered that abandoned mines made secure still sites. Molybdenum and Leadville’s location on U.S. Highway 24, a major north-south mountain thoroughfare, kept the town on life support.

“When I came here, we only had one stop light,” says local resident David Lloyd. “Now we got two. I may have to move because this place is getting too big.”

A Stray Horse Gulch head frame at sunset

Back on the trail, I pedal past dozens of deserted cabins, shacks, head frames, loading docks, mills, cribbing, ore bins, smelter sites and tailing ponds. Autumn aspens line the route in a leafy wall of yellow and orange. Crossing the highway, I re-enter town and loop behind schools and back yards. The area looks comfortably middle-class, not gaudy and ostentatious. Leadville has not become an enclave for the rich and famous. It helps that even the nearest minor-league ski area lies 10 miles away.

Returning the bike, I hobble back to my car feeling stiff as an out-of-shape zombie. It’s time to explore Leadville’s back roads on four wheels. At the visitor center, I obtain a map and begin driving the trio of gravel roads collectively called the Route of the Silver Kings.

The timeworn remains of mining camps dot the route. I frequently stop to explore places where miners worked and lived. In one homey cabin, a bird has nested on exposed rafters. Scraps of blue cloth still cling to walls. A broken cooking stove sits in the center of the floor. I check the view through a glassless window. As I would have done, builders aimed the aperture toward the naked peaks.

These are not bronze-plaque historical sites. Unlike the Matchless, there are neither tours to be taken nor admissions to be paid. These structures sit empty and exposed, derelict remnants of a bygone era. Out here, unguided imaginations can muse freely.

As sunset approaches, I reach a mine at the limit of a two-wheel-drive road. Emaciated buildings lean precariously, victims of a near-timberline location where winter winds whip unabated. Other than a herd of browsing deer, I have the place to myself. I walk around, my feet crunching the loose earth. The rock displays a greenish-orange color that sparkles in the late daylight.

Footsteps shatter the solitude. Startled, I turn toward the sound and find nothing there but eerie emptiness. The “steps” come from a scrap of windblown canvas whipping across the gravel.

Flowers on a post at the Venir Shaft Mine

Then I hear what sounds like a murmur of soft voices interrupted by the wheezing cough of a hard-rock miner. The prattle and hacks seem to come from the leaning buildings. Investigation shows it’s nothing but the wind gossiping through boards, chattering across support wires and choking on sections of tin roofing.

Then I notice the roses. A bouquet of plastic flowers decorates a wooden post. They appear only slightly faded. I walk over, hoping to discern why someone had placed them here. A Ziploc bag sits at the base. Whatever it once held has vanished.

The sun dips behind the peaks, igniting puffy clouds into pink and gold embers. I watch from beside the whispering buildings, trying to interpret their mournful message. Perhaps it’s fate’s forewarning. As sure as gilded skies will fade into leaden darkness and golden leaves will drop to tarnished ground, these venerable structures will one day fall silent to the elements.

I glance back at the bouquet. They may be flowers at the bedside of Leadville’s mineral past.

If You Go

When to go:
Early autumn is a perfect time to visit Leadville. The weather tends to be stable, mosquitoes are gone and fewer vacationers occupy the highways. Because of its altitude, the aspen and willows around Leadville don their autumn cloaks early. Although conditions vary, the highest-carat golds can generally be found from mid-September through early October.

During winter, Leadville becomes a white playground for snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Late spring brings new leaves and mountain wildflowers. Summers in the high mountains can be delightful, in spite of an occasional drenching afternoon thunderstorm.

For more information:
Contact the Chamber of Commerce (719-486-3900 or 888-532-3845, or visit their information center at 809 Harrison Ave.