Two-Mile High Leadville: Rich with Mining History

Feverish mining activity in the late 1800s put Leadville, Colorado on the map. Its rich mines of lead, gold, silver, and other ores produced billions during its heyday and turned many miners, like Silver King Horace Tabor into millionaires. In 1879, this mining magnate built Leadville the Tabor Opera House, which was once billed as the finest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco. Two years later, he also built the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver, Colorado

The fortunes of many other early and notable residents, such as David May, the Guggenheims, Marshall Field, W.B. Daniels, W.G. Fisher, Charles Boettcher, Jerome B. Chaffee, and David Moffat were either enhanced or created from the wealth of Leadville’s mines. This town gave Colorado three governors, John L. Routt, James B. Grant, and Jesse F. MacDonald.

Leadville, once a rowdy town of 40,000 people, was noted for being a free-swinging city of fast-living high spenders. It had 120 saloons, 110 beer gardens, 118 gambling halls, and 35 brothels, according to the Leadville Chronicle. Most of its buildings were built between 1880 and 1905, and today this small mountain community still contains 70 blocks of classic architecture, including the Tabor Opera House, in its National Historic District.

Old Leadville High School now houses the National Mining Hall of Fame and Mining Museum.

National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

Fittingly, the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum is located in Leadville, Colorado in the historic 1890s Leadville High School building, and near the molybdenum-rich Climax mine. The mine is scheduled to reopen soon, according to Robert Hartzell, executive director of the mining museum. With great enthusiasm, Hartzell explained two fascinating new museum exhibits opening this year and in early 2012.

“The World of Molybdenum: the Making of a Modern Metal,” explores the history of the global molybdenum industry, including the world’s largest molybdenum ore body at the Climax mine, found in the once iconic town of Climax. Visitors walk through eight distinct zones in this 1,000-foot high exhibit, which provides a fascinating timeline of an 1879 discovery of molybdenum in Colorado to the most modern-day uses of this crucial resource. Interactive features of this $300,000 exhibit are designed to engage visitors of all ages.

“Expanding Boundaries: Harrison Schmitt and the New Mining Frontier” will provide information on the Apollo missions, geology of the moon, theories and cultural interpretation of the moon. “An extensive collection of meteorites and eventually a real moon rock will be on display,” reports the museum director.

The benefits of space exploration as it relates to the mining industry, includes information on earth-based mining, lunar mining and future prospects for extra-terrestrial mining. The exhibit also honors former Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist to explore the lunar surface. He was a lunar module pilot on Apollo 17, the final Apollo moon mission.

Throughout the museum, we discovered creative exhibits portraying the history of mining from the Bronze Age to the present. On our self-guided tour, we walked through the Hard Rock Mine Exhibit, a realistic replica of a mine tunnel, blacksmith shop, assay office, ore cars and drills. In the Crystal Room, we marveled at the amazing displays of fine gold, silver, ores and minerals, including spectacular specimens loaned from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum. The Gold Rush Room displayed a large 23-ounce specimen of native gold retrieved from the Little Jonny Mine near Leadville and impressive gold specimens from 17 different states that hosted significant gold discoveries.

Meandering through the Mining Hall of Fame on the top floor, we recognized many names in the biographies below the engraved photographs of men and women who have made significant contributions to mining in the past and in the present.

Artifacts from mining days line the wall at the National Hall of Fame and Mining Museum.

If You Go

Unlike some of Colorado’s more famous historic mountain towns, this two-mile high town of over 2,000 people is affordable place to visit today. Allow at least a couple of hours to tour the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, located at 120 West 9th Street, Leadville, CO. Since it opened in 1987, additions over the years have brought the museum to over 70,000 square feet of displays, including two new exhibits and dioramas.

Note the marvelous nine-foot tall marble sculpture depicting two miners called “Mining the Pulse of Civilization” on the outside of the museum. The marble for the sculpture was donated by the Yule Marble Quarry in Marble, CO.

Don’t miss the “The Anatomy of a Miner,” a dramatic sculpture inside the museum that’s a larger-than-life-size welded steel statue by famed artist and sculptor, Gary Prazen.

Visit or call 719-486-1229. To learn more about Leadville’s National Historic District, Tabor Opera House, 308 Harrison Ave., and other attractions, visit the Leadville/Lake County Chamber of Commerce at