Leadville, part of Colorado’s unique Western Heritage
April 16, 2012
Described as “one of America’s richest, longest-lived, and bawdiest mining boom towns,” Leadville, Colo. – located on Route 24 N about an hour and a half west of Denver – makes visitors feel as if they’ve stepped backwards in time to the 1880s. Located at an elevation of 10,152-feet it has spectacular mountain scenery; original Victorian homes and business buildings; six museums; and a historic mining district that encompasses 20 square miles. Harrison Avenue, the main road through the town, was made extra-wide to allow for the maneuvering of horses and wagons and you can easily imagine some of them tied to the hitching rails while taking your tour.
Home to 2500 full-time residents, this truly unique place was once the bustling home of 25,000 -30,000 miners, gunslingers, gamblers, teamsters, outlaws and everyday families, some of whom both made and lost entire fortunes in lead carbonate (which has a high silver content), copper, magnesium, gold and zinc. Their legends still stand, among them the sad story of Horace and Augusta Tabor, who started out as shopkeepers but hit it big after “successfully grubstaking a number of miners.” The magnificent Tabor Opera House, built in 1879 at a cost of $700,000, was said to be “the finest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco” and continues to be a main attraction in the center of town…if for no other reason than the scandal behind it. “Horace had an affair with a young divorcee named Elizabeth Doe,” explained Heather Scanlon, director of the Leadville/Lake County Chamber of Commerce as we visited over coffee. Augusta wouldn’t grant him a divorce and they fought back and forth for years, creating one of the most highly-publicized love triangles of the century. Although he eventually married “Baby” Doe (before a legal divorce) and they continued to live in luxury, it all came to a crashing halt after the repeal of the Sherman Act in 1893, which drove up the price of the metal and caused panic.
Doc Holliday, a dentist-turned gambler from Georgia – most famously known as being behind Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Ariz., at the 1881 OK Corral gunfight – became a part-time bartender and Faro (a highly popular gambling card game) dealer at the Hyman Saloon, which is located at 314 and 316 Harrison. (The pressed tin ceiling can still be seen inside.) Another well-known drinking establishment, the Pastime Bar, is supposedly where Earp, himself, shot a marble off the top of a piano. According to the Heritage Guide that was left in my room at the Alps Motel, “Bat” Masterson, a Kansas teamster, train robber, gunman, gambler and sometimes sheriff, once collected tickets in Leadville for the Jockey Club horse races. “Texas Jack” Omohundro, who costarred in “The Scouts of the Prairie” with Buffalo Bill Cody, moved to Leadville in March of 1880 with his actress wife but died four months later from a bout with pneumonia. (He’s buried in the Evergreen Cemetery there.) In 1908, Buffalo Bill held a ceremony there for his friend, which was attended by hundreds of locals as well as the members of his Wild West Show. He also installed a granite stone, which continues to stand in Jack’s memory.
Molly Tobin, an Irish immigrant who arrived in the town in 1885; married a miner named James Joseph Brown in the Annunciation Church on east 7th Street; raised two children (son Larry Brown once owned a home on West 9th); and donated time and money to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, became one of Leadville most well-known and enduring characters when, 100 years ago on April 15th, 1912 she survived the sinking of the steamship Titanic. Another passenger with ties to Leadville, Benjamin Guggenheim, wasn’t so lucky: along with his valet and chauffeur, he went down with the ship. The magnificent house that his father, Meyer, had built after striking it rich (via a half-share of one mine) remains, now under private ownership.
As the town rapidly expanded, unchecked crime took over much to the dismay of the more law-abiding citizens. Railroad, stagecoach and bank robber Jessie James is believed to have been spotted in Leadville – disguised – between 1879 and 1881. The notorious Younger gang members operated a livery stable. “Soapy” Smith, a well-known con artist, walked the streets of the town with his eyes on the miners and their pockets of gold. Eventually, lynch mobs began seeking their own, special brand of Western justice and gun fights started taking place in the middle of the streets. Things became so rough that even the first Marshall, T.H. Harris, “had served only a few days before he was convinced by local ruffians that he would breathe easier and live longer if he relocated somewhere else,” according to Dave Wright, owner of the town’s oldest restaurant, The Golden Burro, and “he took the advice and promptly left.”
On April 2, 1878, City Council voted to fill that vacancy with George O’Conner. On the 25th, while making his rounds he was murdered by one of his own junior officers, James Bloodsworth (about a week after that man had been warned about his conduct at the local dance halls and gambling dens). The third Marshall, Martin J. Dugger, chose an iron-fist route by quickly “establishing himself as one of the roughest lawmen in early American West history.” Honored as recently as 2010, he was known to have immediately fired all those men whom he believed were not completely upholding the law, plus he would fearlessly stand his ground during any altercations. After he was shot in the back of the head in an ambush outside of the Texas House saloon on April 9, 1888, it was generally believed that the killer was someone who’d been paid by those who held grudges. Thankfully, the West isn’t quite that wild anymore, but in Leadville you can certainly see and experience some of the history behind it wherever you look.