Leadville is a Statutory City that is the county seat of, and the only incorporated municipality in, Lake County, Colorado, United States. Situated at an elevation of 10,152 feet (3094 m), Leadville is the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States. A former silver mining camp that lies near the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the city includes the Leadville Historic District, which preserves many historic structures and sites from Leadville's dynamic mining era.
In the late 1800s, Leadville was the second most populous city in Colorado, after Denver. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the city population was 2,688 in 2005.
Placer gold was discovered in California Gulch in 1860, during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, and the town of Oro City sprung up near present-day Leadville. The boom was brief, however, and Oro City never became a major settlement. The placer gold mining was hampered by heavy brown sand in the sluice boxes.
Discovery of Silver
In 1874, gold miners at Oro City discovered that the heavy sand that impeded their gold recovery was the lead mineral cerussite, that carried a high content of silver. Prospectors followed the cerussite to its source, and by 1876, had discovered several lode silver-lead deposits. The city of Leadville was founded near to the new silver deposits in 1877 by mine owners Horace Austin Warner Tabor and August Meyer , setting off the Colorado Silver Boom. By 1880, Leadville was one of the world's largest silver camps, with a population of over 40,000.
Famous Confederate scout, cowboy and stage actor with "Buffalo Bill" Cody's travelling revue, Texas Jack Omohundro died here in the summer of 1880, of pneumonia, just one month shy of his 34 birthday. He was living there on a small estate with his wife, ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi. It was during this period that Leadville saw its most dangerous days, finally brought under control by little known American Old West lawman Mart Duggan.
In 1882, the Tabor Opera House hosted Oscar Wilde on his lecture tour of the West, one of many celebrities who graced the city. Mayor David H. Dougan invited Wilde to tour the Matchless silver mine and open their new lode: "The Oscar." Wilde later recounted a visit to a local saloon, "where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice - 'Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.'"
Around 1883, famous outlaw Doc Holliday moved to Leadville, only a short time after the gun fight at the O.K. Corral. On August 19, 1884, Holliday shot ex-Leadville policeman, Billy Allen, after Allen threatened Holliday for failing to pay a $5 debt. Despite overwhelming evidence implicating him, a jury found Holliday not-guilty of the shooting or attempted murder.
In its early years, Leadville was the site of some famous mining swindles. When the Little Pittsburg mine exhausted its rich ore body, the managers sold off their shares while hiding the real condition of the mine from other stockholders. “Chicken Bill” Lovell dumped a wheelbarrow of rich silver ore into a barren pit on his Chrysolite mining claim in order to sell the claim to Horace Tabor for a large price; but Tabor had the last laugh when his miners dug down a few feet farther and discovered a rich ore body. Later, the manager of the Chrysolite mine fooled an outside mining engineer into overestimating the ore reserves of that mine.
The city's fortunes declined with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, although afterwards there was another small gold boom. Mining companies came to rely increasingly on income from the lead and zinc.
The district is credited with producing over 2.9 million troy ounces of gold, 240 million troy ounces of silver, 1 million short tons of lead, 785 thousand short tons of zinc, and 53 thousand short tons of copper
During World War II, Leadville was a popular spot for visits by soldiers at nearby Camp Hale, but only after the town acted to curb prostitution; until then, the United States Army declared the town off-limits for its personnel. The Army Air Forces built the Leadville Army Airfield northwest of the city. The war also caused an increase in the mining of molybdenum at the nearby Climax mine. At one point the mine produced 75 percent of the world's molybdenum.
The Leadville Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961. It includes 67 mines in the mining district east of the city up to the 12,000 foot (3658 m) level, and a defined portion of the village area, with specific exclusion of various buildings. Principal historic buildings in the district are: Tabor Grant 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. Structures built after 1917 are considered non-contributing.
Historic District and Life After Mining
The closing of the Climax mine in the 1980s was a major blow to the town's economy. In addition, the many years of mining left behind substantial contamination of the soil and water, so that the Environmental Protection Agency designated some former mining sites in Leadville as Superfund sites. The town is now 98% cleaned up and the Superfund designation is about to expire. The town has made major efforts to improve its economy by encouraging tourism and emphasizing its history and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
The National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame opened in 1987 with a federal charter. The town's altitude and rugged terrain contributes to a number of challenging racing events, such as the Leadville Trail 100 series of races. It is often used as a base for altitude training and hosts a number of other events for runners and mountain bicyclists.
Leadville is known for its festive atmosphere. Boom Days, held on the first full weekend of August, it a tribute to the city's mining past. The festivities include mining competitions and burro racing. Crystal Carnival, held late in winter, features a skijoring competition on Harrison Avenue. As a center for such celebrations, Leadville has unofficially been labeled "Parade Capital U.S.A." in recognition of the frequent, though sometimes small parades held in the downtown area, such as the quirky "St. Patrick's Day Practice Parade".
Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Higher towns and unincorporated settlements do exist.
Once this city was a ghost town. Recently Federation Archeologists have begun restoring the area to create a living museum.