Historic Mining Town of Leadville – Lake County, Colorado
Updated: Oct 5
Leadville is one of the finest historic towns to visit in Colorado. Strolling along the historic district will make you think about what it was like back in the days when it was a boom town during the height of the silver mining days. It was once the second most populous city in Colorado, after Denver, in the late 19th century. Beside the town's historical gems, its altitude and rugged terrain make it a good site for mountain biking, hiking and climbing, as well as a base for high altitude training. We stay in this town when hiking nearby, but for those who are keen on trains, you can check out the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad. It's a two and a half hour ride through the wilderness of the San Isabel National Forest, along the Arkansas River Valley with spectacular views of the Fremont Pass, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert - the two highest peaks in Colorado.
TO GET HERE
From Denver via I-70 takes about a little over a two-hour drive to Leadville. Take I-70 W to CO-91 S in Summit County then take exit 195. You will pass the resort of Copper Mountain. Follow CO-91 S to US-24 E. If you are from out of state visiting, you might want to stop along the way, but that will take you longer of course. I won’t blame you if you do, there are plenty of scenic spots and other historic towns to visit along the way.
Leadville is a former silver mining town that lies near the headwaters of the Arkansas River, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Situated at 10,152 feet (3,094 m), it is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Leadville is a statutory city, the county seat, and the only municipality in Lake County, Colorado. The County Airport is the highest airport in the United States at just under 10,000 feet elevation. Mount Massive Golf Course is also the highest golf course in the country.
Leadville was founded in 1877 by two mine owners named Horace A. W. Tabor and August Meyer. They set off the Colorado Silver Boom and by 1880, Leadville was one of the world’s largest silver camps, with a population of over 40,000. Tabor, known as the "Bonanza King" of Leadville, was an American prospector, businessman and politician. After gaining his fortune from the Matchless Mine, he established newspapers, a bank, the Tabor Grand Opera House and the Tabor Block. However, he lost his entire fortune after extravagant spending and when the value of the silver crashed. He died in 1899, leaving his family almost penniless.
The Impact of Mining in Leadville
The closing of the Climax molybdenum mine in the 1980’s was a major blow to the town’s economy. The years of mining left behind substantial contamination of the soil and water. The United States law designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances (called Superfund sites) is commonly known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) designated some sites in Leadville for clean-up. The town and surrounding area are now 98% cleaned up, but the unsightly scar at the Climax Mine as well as the tailings ponds nearby will remain a visual blight on the landscape for years, if not centuries.
- HISTORIC DISTRICT -
The buildings which were once an important hub of activity in Leadville can be found in the Historic District, designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961. It preserves many historic structures and sites from the mining era, including 67 mines in the mining district east of the city, some portions of the village area, and various buildings - structures that were built before 1917 such as the Tabor Grand Hotel, St George’s Church, Annunciation Church, Tabor Opera House, City Hall, Healy House, Dexter Cabin, Engelbach House, and Tabor House, as well as mining structures and small homes.
TABOR OPERA HOUSE is one of the finest remaining Victorian opera houses in the West, and was once known as the finest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco. It was built in 1879 by Horace Tabor - he brought art, culture and grandeur to the once wild mining camp of Leadville.
The Tabor Opera House was one of the most expensive and most substantially built structures in Colorado history; no expense was spared in its construction and furnishings. It was completed in 100 days from the date of ground-breaking. The massive 3-story structure was built using stone, brick and iron, trimmed with Portland cement. Although the building’s solid 16 inch thick brick walls weathered the test of time, restoration is ongoing to prevent deterioration due to the extreme climate in Leadville. The Tabor Opera House is a proud monument to Colorado history. It hosted many notable talents such as Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, and Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour in 1882.
HYMAN BLOCK was built between 1885 to 1890. Doc Holliday shot his last man here, fortunately the man survived. Doc Holliday, a well-known gunfighter was a dentist by profession. He was a hot-tempered, educated and respected man, fluent in Latin and played the piano very well. He was also a professional gambler, known for his skills with a six-shooter and a long knife, and was a friend of Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Doc Holliday died in bed, not from a gunshot wound, but from consumption (tuberculosis), probably contracted from his mother who also died from consumption when he was fifteen years old.
THE OLD CHURCH, called “Old Church” by the local residents, is a Presbyterian church, located across the City Hall. It was dedicated on December 22, 1889. It has a Gothic-style bell tower and decorative hand-painted glass windows. The Old Church is a landmark on Harrison Avenue.
BREENE BLOCK was built in 1887, named after Lt. Governor and State Treasurer of Colorado, Peter W. Breene who provided the funding. Initially, the first floor was operated as a liquor store by Adolph Hirsch.
WESTERN HARDWARE was first opened in August 1881, as Manville and McCarthy hardware. This building is an example of 19th century commercial architecture. The store operated for 100 years; its original fixtures, including the long counter and drawers, are still on display and in use today.
LEADVILLE CITY HALL was built in 1905 as a federal building. It was used as a Post Office until 1973. The plaque on the front denotes fallen lawmen. In the lobby is an antique popcorn wagon.
ANNUNCIATION CHURCH'S construction started in 1879, and was dedicated on New Year’s Day in 1880. The church and rectory cost $40,000. The steeple is a masterpiece of intricate carpentry, a web-like interweaving of timbers built to last for centuries. The bell called “St. Mary” was installed in 1885; it weighs 3,026 pounds. The prominent “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was married in this church on September 1, 1886; she survived the sinking of the Titanic. The funeral services for Baby Doe Tabor were held here in 1935. The tall spire of the church is a landmark in town.
AMERICAN NATIONAL BANK is a three story brick and sandstone building built in the Romanesque style. The corner tower is topped with a bell-shaped metal-painted dome. The building's first occupant was the American National Bank in 1892.
TABOR GRAND HOTEL was built from 1883 to 1885, designed by noted architect at that time, George King. The four story building was renovated and re-opened in 1992 with shops on the lower floor and apartments on the upper floors.
SILVER DOLLAR SALOON is Leadville’s oldest establishment; it was originally called the Board of Trade Saloon - the name was changed after 1935. The antique bar inside the saloon, made by the Brunswick Company, and its original tile floor is still in use today.
DELAWARE HOTEL BLOCK first opened in October 1886, named in honor of the home state of the three brothers who built it. Construction cost an estimated $60,000. A few years after the building was built, the entire lower floor became a dry goods store, Crews-Beggs, until 1980. The building underwent extensive renovation in 1992; the entire building is now the Delaware Hotel with two restaurants.
- TOP ATTRACTIONS -
National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum
Top attractions in the area include the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. The Museum contains more than 250 stories about the men and women who achieved lasting greatness in mining and natural resources. There are also plaques for honorees in the Pit & Quarry Hall of Fame which was established in 2013 to pay tribute to the pioneers of past and present-day industry leaders. The Matchless Mine, purchased in 1879 by Horace Tabor was one of the richest silver mines of the era which was estimated to have produced $7.5 million.
Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad
A train ride is always a fun way to explore part of the Rocky Mountains. There are several special tours on offer so check their website.
NOTE: For more info on the Leadville Scenic Rides click the link. https://www.leadvillerailroad.com/
A Map to Guide You