Colorado: Leadville

This mining town, located at an altitude of 10,188 feet, became the silver capital of America with the discovery of huge beds of silver ore in 1877. After the silver panic of 1893, the mines surrounding Leadville continued in active operation by producing diverse minerals, including gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, magnesium, iron, bismuth, and molybdenum, with the latter serving as the backbone of the Leadville economy from the 1930’s until the collapse of the global molybdenum market in 1982. Leadville has been declared a National Historic District.

Site Office

Chamber of Commerce

809 Harrison Avenue

P.O. Box 861

Leadville, CO 80461

ph.: (719) 486-3900

The history of Leadville is one of the most extraordinary in the American West. It originated with gold mining in California Gulch and rose to fame and fortune with the discovery of massive deposits of silver ore in 1877. During its heyday as the silver capital of America in the late 1870’s and 1880’s, Leadville won worldwide notoriety as a place of booming economic opportunity. These heady times were numbered, however, and within a decade, the once thriving mining town gradually slipped into a long, steady decline. Unlike other mining areas that became ghost towns, Leadville survived many boom-and-bust cycles because of its diverse mineralization. From the 1930’s onward, the mainstay of the Leadville economy was the growing worldwide molybdenum market until it collapsed in 1982, leaving the town in severe economic straights.

A Gold Rush

With the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush, tens of thousands set off for Colorado to strike it rich. Prospectors struck gold at Cherry Creek near Denver and made greater discoveries in the mountains at Idaho Springs, Silver Plume, Georgetown, Central City, Fairplay, Black Hawk, and Breckenridge. In the spring of 1860, five prospectors crossed Mosquito Range and began working an area later named California Gulch, drilling holes in the bottom of the stream and then panning for gold. On April 26, 1860, one of the prospectors, Abe Lee, hit pay dirt.

The sizable extent of Abe Lee’s discovery went unknown until, with the use of ground sluicing and diversion techniques, the prospectors dug their way to bedrock and hit gold that exceeded all expectations. News of the find spread quickly to prospectors working other streams and trails, igniting a vast gold rush to the area. By May more than one thousand prospectors crowded into the gulch to stake claims. By June the number rose to about four thousand, and by summer’s end the flood tide swelled to fully ten thousand. Prospectors formed a mining district, elected officers, adopted simple bylaws, and named the mining district after California for the riches it held. Abe Lee was elected as recorder of mining claims. In the furious hunt for gold, miners scarcely took time to build themselves houses or cabins, preferring at first to live in wagons, bough huts, or tents, which blanketed the hills. The settlement went initially by the name of Boughtown, and gold dust served as the medium of exchange in the few stores that sold supplies at inflated prices. Soon a more permanent settlement of log cabins, stores, gambling houses, and dance halls emerged, which subsequently became known as Oro City.

California Gulch yielded two million dollars in 1860, and by 1862, its last good year, the region produced another one million dollars in gold. Its treasure soon gave out, and with gold no longer to be found, Oro City collapsed as prospectors moved on in search of other discoveries. By 1865, fewer than four hundred remained in the vicinity of California Gulch, and by 1867, it was virtually deserted. In the summer of 1868, however, the gulch underwent a brief recovery with the development of the Printer Boy Lode. The site had been staked in 1861, but poor management and mining methods slowed its development. Jars of gold from the Printer Boy were displayed in the national banks of Denver, Philadelphia, and New York, attracting renewed interest among eastern capitalists. The activity prompted the miners and merchants to move Oro City two and a half miles up the gulch to be close to the Printer Boy, which continued to yield gold through 1869 before it gave out. By 1870, the area was again abandoned.

Silver Reigns

Unlike the flurry of activity and publicity surrounding the Pikes Peak gold rush, Leadville’s silver era was born in secrecy. The discovery of silver had already occurred in many of Colorado’s gold districts. The state’s first silver boomtown was Caribou, but its fame proved fleeting when in 1874 mining interests struck rich deposits of silver ore in Georgetown. By 1877, Georgetown reigned as the undisputed silver capital of Colorado, producing an annual yield worth two million dollars. Other strikes were made at Alma in Park County, and in southwestern Colorado at Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City. The huge silver strikes near Oro City eclipsed all others, however, precipitating a stampede that dwarfed the previous gold rush.

Following the Printer Boy’s collapse, a few prospectors remained behind in the vicinity of California Gulch, but mining proved increasingly difficult as mud and black rock repeatedly clogged sluicing operations. In 1874, with the arrival of William Stevens and Alvinus B. Wood, the mining district would soon become the grand new silver capital of America. Stevens was a mining promoter who had visited Oro City in 1865 at the end of the first gold rush. In 1872, after inspecting mining districts in Utah, he returned to Colorado and began mining in Alma. Following his return to Oro City in the summer of 1873, Stevens concluded that with a sufficient water supply to operate hydraulic and sluicing operations, significant quantities of gold could still be taken from the gulch. As a result, Stevens purchased claims and water rights from other miners, secured financing from eastern capitalists, and formed a partnership with Alvinus B. Wood, a mining technician. Their operation used powerful pumps and high-pressure water jets to wear away stream and alluvial banks, a process that yielded gold by passing large quantities of gravel and sand through sluices. The venture proved profitable for several years, but as others had already discovered, the heavy, dark rock and sand significantly hindered operations. After careful investigation and testing of the mysterious black rock, the partners discovered that it was in fact lead carbonate containing large amounts of silver. For more than two years, the partners concealed their discovery as they bought out claims covering the richest deposits, including numerous properties on Rock and Iron Hills, giving them a near monopoly over both areas. In the summer of 1877, other prospectors began moving in to stake claims and the word was soon out.

The silver strike ignited a new stampede to Leadville. In a matter of months, swarms of prospectors were frantically staking and recording thousands of claims, producing in the process mass confusion and numerous disputes. The many claims and counterclaims were further complicated by questionable surveying procedures. Leadville soon became a mecca for the legal profession, with the largest population of lawyers in the state. The difference between success and failure often depended on luck, misrepresentation, and timing in buying and selling mining claims.

The classic story of luck, fortune, and fame was that of Horace Austin Warner Tabor, Leadville’s legendary silver king. In 1877, H. W. Tabor moved to Leadville and soon emerged as one of its leaders even before he rose to millionaire status. He assisted in organizing the town’s government and was elected its first mayor in 1878. A veteran prospector and storekeeper in California Gulch, Buckskin Joe, and Oro City, Tabor harbored ambitions beyond middle-class respectability. In 1878, after grubstaking two needy prospectors, August Rische and George Hook, who discovered the fabulous Little Pittsburgh Mine on Fryer Hill, Tabor quickly amassed one of the greatest and most fleeting fortunes in American history. As his wealth grew so did his political status: He became lieutenant governor of Colorado in 1878, and in 1883, U.S. senator for a brief thirty-day stint. For several years, Tabor’s mining enterprises and investments earned him ever-growing riches. He built lavish opera houses in Leadville and Denver and erected Denver’s first skyscraper, the Tabor Block. In the end, however, his financial exploits led to his ruin, and he disappeared along with Leadville’s grand silver age.

Tabor was not the only one to win fabulous wealth. Others included Samuel Newhouse, later an important copper baron and financier of the famous Flatiron Building in New York City; John L. Routt, later a Colorado governor; and Meyer Guggenheim, the future smelter king. Still others found wealth on Iron, Long and Derry, Carbonate, Fryer, and Breece Hills. The mines yielded about two million dollars worth of lead and silver during 1878 and more than nine million dollars the following year. Between 1879 and 1889 total production exceeded eighty-two million dollars in ore. As many arriving in Leadville soon discovered, however, the days of the lone, self-employed miner were over. Riches were now to be found in deep-rock silver mining, which required considerable expertise and capital. With the discovery of silver came the age of bankers, mining engineers, and legions of poorly paid laborers.

Growth of the Town

Founded in 1877 and incorporated in 1878, Leadville saw its population skyrocket from about fifteen hundred in 1879 to more than thirty thousand by summer’s end in 1880, making it the second-largest city in Colorado, after Denver. Leadville grew fast in the fashion of other boomtowns, but unlike Central City, Georgetown, or Silverton, its sudden explosive growth was so spectacular that it gained worldwide notoriety. Despite sitting at an altitude of more than ten thousand feet on the western slope of the Mosquito Range, Leadville itself was not particularly scenic. The surrounding hills had been denuded of pine forests to make charcoal for the fourteen smelting and ore reduction plants that cast a pall over the town, itself composed of ramshackle log huts, board shanties, tents, and kennels dug into hillsides. In time, the jerry-built town yielded to more permanent brick and frame construction. Although in the beginning all the amenities of civilized life went wanting, by 1878 Leadville claimed a city council, a mayor, and a city marshal. Yet the murders, robberies, lot jumping, and vice that ran throughout Leadville’s early history made it one of the toughest towns in the West. In 1878, Leadville witnessed its first murder with the barroom killing of Marshal George O’Conner.

With expanding wealth and population also came culture, society, and religion. Religious organizations, churches, and public schools were established along with fancy hotels and a nationally renowned opera house in 1879. An upscale residential area grandly called Capitol Hill was established on the north end of town for the respectable middle class. Leadville’s great building boom followed the big silver strikes at the New Discovery and Little Pittsburgh Mines in 1878. In the spring of 1879, a business census showed that Leadville accommodated thirty-one restaurants, seventeen barbershops, fifty-one groceries, four banks, and one hundred twenty saloons. Also to be found were lumber businesses, a laundry, drug store, brewery, and three vigorously competing newspapers–the Herald, the Democrat, and the Chronicle. The telegraph came to Leadville in 1879, and in the following year, the telephone, to handle growing business transactions between mining and smelting operations. Besides mining, the lure of riches offered other paths to wealth. Real estate speculation, the provision of supplies and services, the freighting of goods to the two-mile-high city up mountain roads, and the less legitimate enterprises of prostitution and gambling all provided a steady source of income. Indeed, Leadville also claimed the dubious distinction of being home to one of the country’s finest redlight districts.

Labor Disputes and Stock Prices

The thousands of laborers who worked the mines and smelters under abject conditions were mostly newly arrived immigrants from southeastern Europe–Italians, Austrians, Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes. The vast disparity in wealth between the laborers and the corporate owners, together with the perilous working conditions, made for a volatile mixture. In late May, 1880, a strike over a wage dispute at the Chrysolite Mine quickly spread to other mines on Fryer, Carbonate, Breece, and Iron Hills and throughout Lake County. For the next three weeks, as the threat of strike violence mounted, the owners hired armed guards and exercised political pressure to call in the state militia. When the state government complied and declared martial law, the strike collapsed, compelling the miners to resume work under the old wage rate.

That same year, Leadville was hit with even more devastating developments. The failure of both the Little Pittsburgh and Chrysolite Mines ended an era of easy wealth. The Little Pittsburgh, which had ushered in Leadville’s heyday, went bankrupt in February, 1880, amid charges of stock manipulation, mismanagement, and overpromotion. Tabor and his two partners, U.S. senator Jerome Chaffee and financier David Moffat, held a controlling interest in the Little Pittsburgh until its seemingly inexhaustible riches began dwindling at the close of 1879. The partners maintained a facade of confidence while selling out at a huge profit, leaving eastern speculators holding stocks that plummeted in value from $65 a share to just $6 in a matter of months. The Chrysolite, too, failed, causing its stock to drop from over $40 a share to $4. By 1881, Leadville’s silver era was in slow decline as the rich ore began to run out. Several other large mines almost failed in early 1881.

Yet Leadville continued to prosper well into the decade as new mines opened, making up for the lag in production. H. W. Tabor opened his Tabor Grand Hotel, which drew immediate praise as one of the finest hotels in the West. The opening followed a national scandal over Tabor’s leaving his wife, Augusta, for a divorcée from Central City named Elizabeth McCourt Doe (or, as she was soon dubbed “Baby Doe”). The Rio Grande Railway defeated two rivals, the Sante Fe and the Denver and South Park, for the right to service Leadville’s transportation needs. As a result, on July 22, 1880, the Rio Grande’s first train arrived in Leadville carrying a famous passenger, Ulysses S. Grant.

Following 1885, Leadville’s silver mines produced approximately five million ounces annually, about half that of their peak year in 1880. In a harbinger of harder times to come, in 1890 silver prices fell from $1.16 to $1.00 per ounce. In a campaign to boost falling silver prices, Congress in 1890 passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, obligating the federal government to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver each month, but in 1893 the act was repealed, which contributed significantly to a nationwide silver panic that closed banks across the country. The repeal of the act dealt the final blow to Leadville’s glittering prosperity, starting it down a long, steady road of decline. Between 1890 and 1893, the number of operating mines plunged from about one hundred to only twenty, closing smelters and throwing many laborers out of work. To prolong their employment, the miners agreed to a fifty-cent pay cut, which lowered their daily wage to a mere $2.50. Although the silver crisis forced other mining camps to close, Leadville’s remaining mining operations underwent a recovery, increasing production levels significantly despite silver prices averaging sixty-three cents per ounce. The year 1895 almost matched that of 1880 in the extraction of ore. The mines produced nearly nine million ounces, but most of this production stemmed from just one mine, the Little Johnny, part of the Ibex Properties that became Leadville’s leading gold and silver producer.

In the summer of 1896, sixteen years after the 1880 strike, the daily wages of miners still stood at only between $2.50 and $3.00. The mine owners remained as adamant as ever against the demands of labor and refused to recognize the miners’ union, the Cloud City Miners Union. On June 19, 1896, Leadville’s great strike erupted, which would adversely affect labor-management relations in the hard rock mines for decades. The owners quickly responded with a lockout, and in retaliation, miners reacted with violence, arson, even murder. Eventually, the state militia restored order with the imposition of martial law. The owners then hired scab labor to work the mines under armed guard, maintaining the lockout for a full nine months before breaking the strike in the spring of 1897.

With the strike’s end another chapter in Leadville’s history came to a close. The long lockout wreaked considerable damage on many mining operations–shafts flooded, timbers rotted, mine workings collapsed, and parts of others became silted in. As the price of silver continued to fall, mining faltered, layoffs became common, and the miners harbored bitter resentment over the strike’s loss and their paltry wages. At the turn of the centry, Leadville’s gilded age was past. Some of the silver barons who rose to dizzying heights of wealth had lost everything in the 1893 silver crash, and none felt the sting of misfortune more than Tabor. Tabor’s vast wealth evaporated with poor investments and the silver panic, and he died in poverty in Denver in 1899. His widow, Baby Doe, returned to Leadville where she spent her remaining years in poverty in a shack behind the Matchless Mine, where she was found frozen to death in March, 1937. In many ways, the fate of these two paralleled that of Leadville. The surrounding hills lay scarred and barren, mines were abandoned, and the once-frenetic town in the days of the silver rush was now being deserted. By 1900 Leadville’s population stood at only twelve thousand, a precipitous drop from the more than thirty thousand during its heyday in 1880.

Leadville survived the economically depressed times of the early 1900’s through its diversified mineralization; in 1905, its mines produced eleven million dollars. The district’s most profitable metal was now zinc, accounting for 40 percent of total production. Gold amounted to 10 percent of production; copper, 6 percent; silver and lead, 22 percent; and iron and magnesium represented a tiny fraction of the total value. By 1910, Leadville was nothing more than an average mining town with a population of only seven thousand. It remained stagnant until the 1930’s, when the molybdenum mines at nearby Climax were opened, beginning a new era in Leadville history.

The Discovery of Molybdenum

In 1879, the prospector Charles Senter discovered deposits of molybdenum near Leadville while mining his Bartlett Mountain claims. First identified as an element by Swedish chemist Carl Sheele in 1779, the mineral existed as a curiosity for more than a century before the French discovered that it could be used to create an extremely hard steel alloy. When the German army proved the superiority of molybdenum-steel alloys during World War I, a frantic rush ensued to gain control of Bartlett Mountain, the world’s largest known deposit of molybdenite. The American Metals Company (AMCO), the Molybdenum Products Company, and interests represented by Otis Archie King battled fiercely for sole control of the deposits, with AMCO winning the contest. AMCO established the Climax Molybdenum Company in 1916 and briefly began full-scale production in 1918 to supply the war effort.

Following the war, a national labor shortage drew a large Mexican American population to Leadville, where they worked in the smelters and the Climax mines and settled on the south side of town. The immediate postwar years saw little demand for molybdenum, however, and the Climax mines closed down. They would briefly open and then close again repeatedly until the 1930’s. In 1928, the Climax Molybdenum Company built a company town to help alleviate chronic labor problems and the highest turnover rate in American industry, and in 1930, the molybdenum mines produced about 5 percent of Colorado’s total ore production. During the years of the Great Depression, Leadville endured hardship with the rest of the nation. With only twenty mines remaining in operation, excluding Climax, Leadville’s population fell to just 3,400. On nearby Freemont Pass, however, the Climax Molybdenum Company prospered throughout the 1930’s with expanding molybdenum markets in domestic and foreign industry. Once a mere curiosity, the mineral and its compounds were now used to produce alloy steels, stainless steels, cast irons, paints, lubricants, agricultural fertilizers, and chemicals. One of the largest markets for molybdenum was Germany’s Weimar Republic, soon replaced by the Third Reich.

By the late 1930’s, Leadville awoke from its economic slump as increased demand caused prices for silver, copper, and zinc to soar to historic highs. In 1939, the number of Leadville mines reached forty-nine, which doubled with the coming of the war. With World War II, the federal government declared molybdenum a strategic metal and the Climax mines operated at full capacity. The metals and mining boom continued until about 1953, when production dramatically declined, leaving Climax as the mainstay of Leadville’s economy. Throughout the 1970’s, the Leadville mines rode a booming molybdenum market and soaring gold and silver prices, which surged to record highs in January, 1980. In just three months, however, prices plummeted and in 1982 the global molybdenum market collapsed, forcing the Climax facilities to close down operations for the first time in more than fifty years. With the closing of Climax, Leadville saw 85 percent of its tax base and 3,500 jobs vanish, and its population fall from 8,500 to just 3,000. As of 1988, about two hundred miners were still employed at smaller opertions, producing gold, pyrite, silver, lead, and zinc; seven hundred were unemployed, and the overwhelming portion of the workforce–about 1,800 people–worked in the nearby ski resort towns of Vail and Copper Mountain in the service industry.

Leadville Today

Leadville may never again recover its prosperous mining economy. Climax no longer dominates the world molybdenum market; it faces stiff competition from newly developed domestic and foreign mining interests. Although Leadville has now become a tourist attraction, it still contains vast quantities of unmined gold, silver, zinc, and lead. The United States Department of Energy declared California Gulch a Federal Superfund clean-up site due to the acidic, metallic water running from a tunnel in the Arkansas River. Many of Leadville’s historic buildings from the early boom years remain for visitors to see, including the famed Tabor Opera House, Augusta Tabor’s house, and Baby Doe’s Matchless Cabin.

For Further Information

  • Blair, Edward. Leadville: Colorado’s Magic City. Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1980.
  • Buys, Christian J. Historic Leadville in Rare Photographs and Drawings. Ouray, Colo.: Western Reflections, 1997.
  • Griswold, Don, and Jean Griswold. The Carbonate Camp Called Leadville. Denver: University of Denver Press, 1951. Focuses on the boom years from 1878 to 1880.
  • Larsh, Ed B., and Robert Nichols. Leadville USA. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1993.
  • Ubbelohde, Carl, Maxine Benson, and Duane A. Smith. A Colorado Reader. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1982.
  • Voynick, Stephen M. Leadville: A Miner’s Epic. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 1984. A readable history of Leadville covering the years up to the 1980’s.