Whether in town for culture or activities, Leadville, CO has much to offer
Breathless, breathtaking—two words lingering in my mind since my visit to Leadville, CO. I was completely breathless a few times, such as after climbing the steps from the Heritage Museum to the Healy House. The air at 10,152 feet above sea level is clean and crisp, but a bit on the scarce side.
Breathtaking sums up the vistas of the “Fourteeners” of the Colorado High Country. Locals coined this name for mountains over 14,000 feet in altitude. Almost two dozen are visible from Leadville and along the Arkansas River between Leadville and Salida. Even though I spent several years of my childhood in the shadow of the high peaks, they are still impressive.
Leadville, CO, a small town now, but packed with history that seeps from the buildings and abandoned mines. Go for the breathtaking scenery or the history that will keep you breathless with anticipation, but do go. Be sure to try the The Golden Burro, (known locally and on their T-shirts as The Brass Ass) for breakfast or dinner and High Mountain Pies for pizza. Don’t miss Quincy’s. They serve one item: filet mignon, for the astounding price of $7.95! Except on Friday and Saturday when they serve prime rib instead. It is an interesting concept that pays off with lines every night.
Breathless or not, I was charmed by the history and beauty of a place I remembered only vaguely from my childhood. We visited Leadville to refresh my mind about the ‘flavor’ of the area as a setting for an upcoming book. My husband and I visited the first week of June, when the historic streets were relatively tourist free and we had the museums almost to ourselves. It was great. Our private tour of Healy House and Dexter Cabin introduced me to the fact that little Leadville was once a metropolis of nearly 40,000 men, women, and children with 30 school houses and a social register to rival Denver or even NYC! The restored mansion and cabin encapsulate a side of Leadville history that is overlooked in school lessons about the Gold Rush. It was a breathtaking revelation that has sparked so many ideas racing around in my head that I may have to write an entire series.
Speaking of racing—while I panted my way around the town, I enviously watched the bikers and joggers. They zipped by seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were almost 2 miles high. Then I learned they actually have races and marathons at that altitude during July and August when the Leadville Trail 100 races are scheduled. Talk about breathless!
You might not think the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame would be that interesting. I was delighted with the dioramas portraying the evolution of mining. A whole room is dedicated to the Climax Molybdenum mine, not far from Leadville, a place with special meaning for me. My father was one of the mine engineers in the mid 1960’s who helped orchestrate the implosion of part of the mine with 417,000 pounds of explosives! Of course we had to drive up to the top of Fremont Pass for a bittersweet look at the mine on our way around the Top of the Rockies scenic byway with breathtaking scenery and a glimpse of Camp Hale, a little known chapter of WWII history.
I knew his name, but never gave much thought to Horace Tabor, benefactor of Leadville. His rise to wealth and fall to destitution turns out to be a story that kept me breathless and spellbound. From a meteoric rise to wealth and the love triangle of Augusta, Horace, and “Baby Doe” to his tragic end, Horace Tabor exemplified both Leadville’s miners and her aristocracy. We toured the three remaining properties. They are all that is left of his fortune. Turns out we started at the end of the story.
Our first stop was The Matchless mine, richest of its time and the last stand of “Baby Doe” Tabor. She died there alone and penniless. The mine is no longer in production although many say there is still silver to be found. Later in the day we wandered into the Tabor Opera House. Built in 1879, it took only 100 days to complete, despite building materials being brought in by train from elsewhere. Who would believe that top name performers like Houdini, Anna Held, and John Philip Sousa graced the stage and entertained the elite of Leadville society? The photographic proof is on the walls. Performances are still scheduled in the summer months, even as a restoration drive is underway. The last museum we visited was the newly opened Tabor House Museum, his original log cabin in Leadville. Guides dressed in period costume gave a summary of the Tabor story, which by now I could recite myself. We were free to roam the small home, which houses some of Tabor’s actual furnishings. The tour doesn’t take long, but for a history fan like me, being inside all that history was breathtaking and left my mind spinning with stories.
Those massive mountains still hold the gold, silver, lead, molybdenum, copper, and even gemstones that created Leadville. Truth and legend intertwine like the veins of ore deep in the hills. Modern sporting goods stores and antique malls occupy the old buildings that retain their historic facades. How can any visitor not be enchanted by the breathtaking beauty and enticed into breathless anticipation of finding a rock containing a gold nugget?