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Another summer in COVID. Which actually is little bother to us since there is so much to see here in our own state that we can drive to, and we tend to stay in self-catering units anyway. We're not quite ready to brave the international travel scene again, so the main trip I had planned for us was a trip to Leadville, another mining town about a two-hour drive away. You can read about all the wildflowers we found HERE!
We traveled there with our 4Runner hoping to explore 4x4 roads and find mining ruins like we found around Fairplay and Breckenridge and as we do around our own neck of the woods. Find these we did, several of which were on a scale to dwarf any ruins around our home turf, such as the New Monarch ore bin, one of the best preserved in the Leadville mining district.
Whenever I go to write a post on Colorado, I get sucked down a nerdy rabbit hole into reading lots of history, some of which I have shared. I'm going to share more now, I can't help myself. So dear readers if you're interested, I'll tell you a bit about Leadville, the most dramatic boom-bust town and arguably the most important in Colorado's mining history. The upshot of a lot of the research is realizing I need to go back and see a lot that I didn't before. It's also the upshot of being there during COVID, as a lot of the museums in town weren't open. It's the heritage of my state — I'm drawn to it. If you just want to see the photos, scroll on down a ways.
In spite of the name "Leadville," silver mining is what made the kings around here, though lead production was second only to silver. At 10,150 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in North America, with a backdrop of some of the highest peaks in Colorado, over 14,000 feet. Below, Erik and I overlook the town from Venir Shaft ... you can just pick out the little dots making up Leadville in the valley. The very tallest peaks are actually out of the frame to the left.
The first load of placer gold (taken from the surface such as with sluice boxes or panning, as opposed to hard rock mining) near present-day Leadville was discovered in California Gulch in April 1860. By the end of that summer thousands of people had ascended into the gulch in search of sparkling fortune, a veritable swarm of optimistic humanity.
But the boom was short-lived — by 1865 placer miners were already leaving in droves as the deposits were becoming depleted.
As yields of gold were plunging, the Civil War at this time was eliciting more demand for gold or shares in gold mining companies, which it turned out had little in proven reserves. Then the Indian War broke out on the Great Plains in 1864 disrupting transportation of the gold to the eastern states through 1865. Stamp mills were failing. Numerous factors conspired to bust the gold rush by about 1866. By 1868 mines and mills had closed, miners lost their jobs, towns dried up, and people left both the mining region and Colorado itself. So from the time of the discovery of gold in the region in 1858, which led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861, Colorado’s first mineral boom had gone bust in roughly ten years.
During those heady golden years in California Gulch, the miners began to find what they called “black cement,” “black sand,” or “the damned blue stuff.” All they understood at first was that the mysterious substance clogged sluices and frustrated placer mining. About the time Colorado became a state in the union, 1876, two experienced miners from the South Park area decided to rework the old placers in California Gulch. They used hydraulic mining to recover gold, but as they did so, they noticed the dark rock that had frustrated the placer miners. They decided to take samples over to an assayer in Alma, who determined that the mineral was a rich silver-lead ore with substantial amounts of iron.
Well these two, rather than brashly announcing their find, quietly went to work. First they began to acquire claims high on Iron Hill near the gulch, which they discovered as the source of the rocks they had assayed. Then they searched for a place to sell the ore they might produce, and came into contact with an ore buyer from St. Louis. He came to Iron Hill and was so impressed by the content of the ore that he immediately obtained wagon teams to carry the product over the mountains to railheads from which it was shipped up to St. Louis for smelting. Although still turning a profit, they all recognized that transportation was very expensive.
And so, as the drum roll begins, heralding the next boom, in 1877 the company buying the ore decided to erect a branch smelter north of California Gulch, known as the Harrison Works (the main thoroughfare of Leadville now is Harrison Avenue), to provide a local ore market. It was getting difficult to keep the silver secret now as ore emerged from the Iron Hill mines and the Harrison Works smelted it to bullion. Suddenly the news of silver in them thar hills spread like a wildfire and by mid-1877, hundreds and then thousands of miners were once again making their way to California Gulch. They overwhelmed the existing community of Oro City located in the steep-walled gulch; a new community arose around the Harrison Works which would become Leadville. It went by several other names until 1878 when the town petitioned for its first post office. Horace Tabor became the post master and gave the town its name after the lead ore found in the area. You, my readers, met Horace back in my post about Buckskin Joe when he was married to Augusta. But it was here in Leadville where he made his fame with his second wife, Baby Doe. But we'll get to that story in a bit.
Almost overnight, Leadville blossomed into the second or third largest city in Colorado. Its ore production dwarfed everything that Colorado had produced in the previous two decades combined, and by the early 1880s was the largest silver and lead producing center in the United States. There was even talk of moving the state capitol to Leadville.
As the silver industry boomed spectacularly, men who would become some of the wealthiest in the country arrived and made their fortunes here, such as Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who invested in his first Leadville mine in 1880, and I think we all know how well that went for him, founding one of the most illustrious family names in America. Horace Tabor, a well-known name in Colorado, made a fortune on the Matchless Mine, though he did not invest so wisely as the Guggenheims.
And so hooray hooray everything is peachy keen in Leadville, people are getting rich, but slowly, for several reasons, silver prices started slipping by a couple cents a year in the late 1880s, though hardly anyone noticed as the fortune factory continued. Then in 1893 two things happened, but only one of them is typically talked about in articles on the silver bust. I had only heard of the one even after previously researching some on Colorado mining. That one is the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which devalued silver in the U.S. that had previously been propped up by the government. I was therefore very interested to read the following in the article, The Mining Industry in Colorado.
"Then on June 26, 1893, came disaster. On that day, the British Parliament accepted the report of the Herschell Committee, which recommended that Her Majesty’s Mints in India cease the coinage of silver rupees. Overnight, the price of silver plunged from 80 cents to 64 cents an ounce, then continued sinking to 60 cents an ounce. Almost instantly, the American silver industry began shutting down. Mines closed, mills closed, and smelters closed. Railroads curtailed service, banks failed, and real estate investors sold their holdings at heavy losses. Thousands of people lost their jobs. In mining, unemployment soared in all the silver regions, reaching 40% to 50% in the larger communities, and nearly 100% in places supported by only one or two mines.
By July, virtually the entire silver industry had come to a halt. The Silver Crash of 1893 was a catastrophe in the West, and especially in Colorado, where silver production formed the backbone of the minerals industry and the state economy. Later in the year, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 put even greater pressure on the industry. Some historians believe that in Colorado the ravages of the Crash created an economic crisis equal to or worse than the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The psychological impact of the collapse was also so great that innumerable historians have written–incorrectly–that it destroyed the silver industry in Colorado and the West. As 1894 began, the price of silver finally stabilized at about 60 cents per ounce, and the silver industry gradually came back to life. The mines, mills, and smelters reopened; so, too, did many ancillary businesses. But there were significant changes that were quickly evident. The most obvious change was in wages. The price of silver was now lower than it had been six months before, and as the industry rehired workers, the wages offered workers were lower as well. So, in effect, hardrock miners, mill workers, and smelter men bore the brunt of the silver collapse. That, of course, had important consequences. The 1890s witnessed a dramatic increase in unionization and the beginning of a virulent labor-management war that would last for at least a quarter century."
Up to this point, most of the information I've imparted has come from the extensive article sponsored by the National Register of Historic Places titled, "The Mining Industry in Colorado." I've excerpted some direct quotes into my post, but it's messy to denote them (save the one above) amidst a lot of paraphrased and other-sourced material, and it's not like this is a school research paper, haha. So just know, that is my primary source for the above history. Another prominent source for this whole post is Leadville.com.
But now let's go back to the story of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, who were dramatically affected by the silver crash. Potentially the most famous mine in Colorado is the Matchless Mine because of the legendary drama of the personal lives involved. Baby Doe Tabor is known by most Coloradoans, I think, and her association with the Matchless, but perhaps not beyond our state, although there have been two operas written about her. I saw one of them performed at the Central City opera house, which is actually the town in which she lived with her first husband. So for those who don't know, I will summarize this story:
After moving to Leadville with his wife Augusta and working as the postmaster, Horace Tabor was already mayor of the town by 1879 and making a fine enough penny as a merchant and mine investor. The Matchless claim was bought in 1878 by other folks who did not see a big return on it. Tabor bought into it in 1879 and spent a heck of a lot of money to gain exclusive title before it had even produced anything substantial because it lay along the east-west trend of the ore discovered in several nearby "bonanza" mines and I guess you could say he had a suspicion it would pay off.
Sure enough, a shaft dug near a corner of the claim in 1880 hit a rich vein of silver. By January 1883, the mine had produced what in today's dollars is about $485 million in silver ore. The was quite a meteoric rise in fortune.
Meanwhile, over in Wisconsin, a beautiful Elizabeth McCourt had married one Harvey Doe, Jr., and they moved to Central City, Colorado, to work the Fourth of July mine (near where I live) which his father owned an interest in. But Harvey was barely able to make a living much less a profit, and he stuffed his new wife into miner's clothes and made her personally work a shaft in the mine. (!) The rough men of Central City, save for her own husband, expressed their affection and appreciation of her beauty and gritty spirit by giving her the nickname Baby Doe — the miner's sweetheart. It stuck.
In 1880 Baby Doe attracted the attention of the newly wealthy Horace Tabor, who had become at odds with his wife Augusta over how to live with their new wealth in Leadville. Augusta was a spendthrift while Horace wished to live lavishly. Baby Doe left her husband and Central City behind to pursue a liaison with Horace. Their affair soon became public knowledge, and of course rather scandalous, so in 1882 after divorcing their spouses, they got married.
The newly married couple flaunted their spectacular fortune by spending recklessly and throwing lavish parties at the mansion they built in Denver. They were one of the five richest families in the country.
Their fairytale ended in 1893 with the silver crash. Because of his irresponsible spending and unwise investments, Horace couldn't ride out the crash, he lost his fortune, eventually resorting to menial jobs to keep his wife and two daughters fed. He passed away in 1899 and legend has it that his last words to Baby Doe were, "Hold onto the Matchless. It will make millions again."
And so Baby Doe did just that. After Horace's death the mine was sold to settle the mining company's debts, but Baby Doe's sister actually bought back the mine a year later and granted Baby Doe the legal power to conduct all the business regarding the Matchless. The ore produced by its lessees declined in quality and quantity and eventually the mine was foreclosed on. By this time Baby Doe had moved into the little superintendent's cabin and was essentially destitute. Shorego Mining Company, owned by a wealthy Denverite, bought the mine to allow the now elderly Baby Doe to stay in her cabin and she was apparently being supported by benefactors including former fellow Leadville citizen, the famous Molly Brown, although Baby Doe was not cognizant of these generosities. In her mind, which became increasingly prey to dementia, she was a proud woman who did not accept charity.
In the winter of 1935, Baby Doe was found frozen in her little cabin. It appeared she had died of a heart attack some days earlier, alone and destitute yet holding onto the Matchless. Even though she was renowned for her stunning beauty, in the end it was her grit and pluck, as once demonstrated in her first marriage, that proved to be her defining feature.
Shorego eventually donated the mine to the city of Leadville for its historic value as the story of Baby Doe had become well-known by mid-century.
If you visit Leadville, you can tour the mine and Baby Doe's cabin, the house in which Horace and Augusta lived, and the Tabor opera house in downtown Leadville.
Below is an old photo of the Matchless ruins, I don't know the year, in the National Mining Museum.
It just so happened that one of the nights we were in Leadville, the historical society was having a free drive-in movie at the mine. They had a big blow-up screen and a sound system, concessions and free (and delicious) popcorn. Unfortunately it was so cold sitting in our camping chairs at 10,200 feet above sea level on a cloudless night, that once I finished my first bag, in spite of being offered another, I just sat still in my blanket cocoon, afraid that any movement would let in a chill. The movie was Into The Spider-Verse, which was such a funny juxtaposition of modern entertainment at this old historic site. I took a picture of one of the buildings beneath the moon.
So the silver boom lasted 16 years and created some fabulous and lasting wealth for certain investors. And then .....
One J.J. Brown had been steadily working as a miner in Leadville in the 1880s, progressing from miner to superintendent. In 1886 he married a woman named Molly and for a time they moved up the hill a few miles to live in Stumpftown (more popularly called Stumptown). Today there are but a few remaining structures, the largest and most intact below. Reflected along with the building are the orange-colored tailings dump of a mine behind.
For some context of the grand landscape in which these high altitude miners lived ... can you find the cabin above in the photo below?
In 1892 J.J. was brought in as a partner in the Ibex Mining Company which owned the Little Johnny Mine. That year the company discovered gold in the mine, but like their savvy predecessors who discovered the silver, they kept this bit of information to themselves until they could buy the claims surrounding the Little Johnny, as they had determined that the gold vein traveled sideways under neighboring claims.
So when silver crashed in 1893 sending many mining companies spiraling downward, the Ibex Company was poised to start the next gold boom. When they announced the find in 1893, the grade of gold was shown to be so pure and the vein so wide, it was called one of the world's richest gold strikes to that date. It revived the mining town’s economy and in fact aided the entire state's financial recovery. By November of 1893, the Little Johnny was shipping 135 tons of gold ore per day. Move over silver barons, the Ibex Company's in town!
Nothing remains on the surface of the Little Johnny mine, but several other structures from the Ibex Company's holdings remain. The largest is the Ibex ore house, below. It's kind of hard to get a sense of scale, but it's very large, taller than the New Monarch pictured above. I read that it's the largest preserved historical mining structure in the Leadville district. I don't think there is any active upkeep, it's just well built! It sits amid mounds of mine tailings. In elevation, this is about 1,400 feet above the town of Leadville, nearing tree line.
A stone's throw away (if you have a really strong arm) from the ore house stands the headframe of the Irene Shaft, referred to as Irene #2. This is a later shaft sunk in the 1950s to an impressive depth of 1,750 feet. So its bottom is several hundred feet lower than Leadville. I'm not sure exactly when it stopped operation, but potentially not until the 1990s.
J.J. Brown's name might have been more famous considering his extraordinary wealth, but he was eventually eclipsed by his wife, the well-known survivor of the Titanic who was dubbed the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" for her courage in helping other survivors evacuate the ship, later establishing the Survivor’s Committee. Molly used the spotlight from her Titanic fame to promote women’s rights and she become the first woman to run for congress in 1914. Although incredibly wealthy and living in virtual opulence for the day (the house she lived in in Denver can be toured), Molly's standard and values always lay in service to others. She founded or participated in several philanthropic projects, volunteered during WWI, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1932. J.J. was also very generous with his money, in marked contrast to Horace Tabor and Baby Doe. Despite their shared values, J.J. and Molly eventually separated but remained friendly.
Okay, well I imagine you've had about enough Leadville history and biographies. Let's put in a few more photos! We've moved away now from the Ibex complex; below are abandoned and collapsing structures at the Venir Shaft.
It's a great location for an overview of the valley where Leadville lies and the mountain ranges behind. I read that Leadville was at one time referred to (at least by some) as Cloud City. It looks like we are so high up that the ceiling of clouds is just above our heads, as if we could maybe reach it with a tallish ladder. Erik looks like he's about to walk right on off the edge of the plateau.
But in fact he just sat down and we had lunch.
It was strangely difficult to identify a lot of the ruins we ran across from the internet (because we typically wander aimlessly and explore first, then learn about what we found later) — a problem I did not have with the things we ran across in the South Park and Breckenridge areas. To the best of my reckoning, the pics below are from the Tucson Mine in the Iron Hill area where the silver was first discovered. If you're reading this and you know differently, let me know! I have my idea because they look very like a photo labeled the Tucson Mine from the Mining History Association. You can see from the first pic how precarious so many of these abandoned structures are, soon to be only piles of planks.
Below is a headframe we ran across; couldn't tell you at all where we were at, haha. Just wandering. You can see Chewie over on the left for scale.
A tailings dump rises up like a mountain on the moon. No other structures around it, just a big hill.
Lastly, below are a couple historic photos of Leadville from the National Mining Museum, which I very highly recommend taking a visit to if you are in the area. Admission is very reasonable at $12 and it's chock full of interesting history and artifacts, and tons of really cool rocks if you're impressed with our planet's geological wonders. The photo with the burros I actually bought the print for a whopping $3 there. Burros were such an important part of Rocky Mountain mining life, I think they generally are not given their due credit for how invaluable they were as pack animals. They are standing in what was and still is the main street of Leadville (Harrison Ave.).