Leadville, Colorado

Nestled in the mountains of the US state of Colorado is the small town of Leadville. This town owes its existence to the gold rush that began when gold was discovered in the area in the mid-19th century. At one time, Leadville was a thriving town in a very lawless Wild West. Up to 30,000 people lived in the town at that time, hoping to strike it rich in the region’s mines. Today, just over 3,000 people live in Leadville. Its days as a mining mecca are long gone, though it is now very popular with tourists looking to get a glimpse of life in a mining town during the time of the Wild West. Leadville also boasts natural attractions and plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures.

Geography 

Leadville skyline
The skyline of Leadville, Colorado.

The town of Leadville is located in central Colorado, at the headwaters of the Arkansas River. It is situated between two mountain ranges, the Mosquito Range to the east, and the Sawatch Range to the west. To the southwest of Leadville, 19 km from the town, is Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in the entire Rocky Mountain Range. Leadville itself is situated at a height of 3,094 meters, making it the highest city in the whole United States. The town has a total area of 2.9 sq. km. 

Population Of Leadville

The total population of Leadville is 3,058. This population has grown 17.52% since the 2010 census, when it had a population of 2,602. Nearly 86% of Leadville residents are classified as white. People identified as “other race” make up 6.67% of the population, while Native Americans comprise 3.06% of the town’s residents. More than 87% of the people of Leadville speak only English. Spanish is the next most spoken language at 9.8%. A little over 95% of residents in Leadville were born in the United States, and more than 45% were born in the town itself.

Economy Of Leadville

Leadville city
Legendary saloon bar in the historic mining town of Leadville, Colorado.

The average household income in Leadville is $74,648. The poverty rate is 7.01%. The largest industries in the town in terms of number of employees are construction, educational services, and retail trade, while the highest paying industry is professional, scientific, & technical services. 

History Of Leadville

The history of Leadville begins in April 1860, when a person named Abe Lee discovered gold in the California Gulch, 1.6 km west of the town. This find triggered a full-fledged gold rush three months later. By the summer of 1860, the population of Leadville swelled to 10,000. In 1866, however, Leadville’s gold deposits had run out. The prospectors who remained relocated closer to the town, where heavy, black sand covered the area.

Leadville sign
Wooden welcome sign to the town of Leadville, Colorado.

In 1877, it was discovered that there were valuable silver deposits in the black sand. This was the same year that the town of Leadville was officially founded. It had several names prior to being called Leadville, including California Gulch, Boughton, Cloud City, Harrison, and Slabtown. But when the townspeople petitioned for a post office, the town’s name was changed to Leadville. By 1879, word got out about the silver deposits in Leadville, and it became a boomtown once again. New hotels, restaurants, saloons, and brothels were built, and mines were spread southward. By 1880, Leadville had gas lighting, water mains, 45 km of streets, five churches, three hospitals, six banks, and a school for 1,100 students. 

The silver boom in Leadville lasted until 1893, when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed, causing the price of silver to plummet. Wages shrunk, unemployment rose, and the area’s rich silver barons lost their fortunes. Fortunately, there was a small gold boom following the collapse of silver prices. Later on, however, miners in the area transitioned to making income from lead and zinc. A miners’ strike in 1896-97 resulted in bloodshed. At least five people were killed and one mine was burned.

Mining shafts in Leadville mining district.

During World War II, there was strong demand for molybdenum, which was used to harden steel. At one point, one mine close to Leadville, called the Climax Mine, produced 75% of the world’s molybdenum. In fact, by 1980, the Climax Mine was the biggest underground mine in the world. The income from the mine allowed Leadville to build vital infrastructure. It also provided jobs for many of the townspeople. But in 1981, the market dropped again, forcing many residents of Leadville out of work and leading to a steep economic decline for the town. The Climax Mine did not resume production until 2010.

After more than 150 years of mining, environmental damage has been a growing concern. More specifically, the water and soil in the area have become contaminated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that although much of the environmental damage has been mitigated, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children in the area should still get their blood levels checked.

Attractions In Leadville

Leadville opera house
The historic Tabor Opera House in Leadville. Editorial credit: Sandra Foyt / Shutterstock.com

Leadville has many attractions, both man-made and natural. For those who want to experience the history of the town, the historic downtown area of Leadville is the place to be. Seventy square blocks of downtown Leadville have been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Historic buildings in the area include museums like the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, which chronicles US mining history and provides a hands-on look at how mining supports people’s lives in the 21st century. There are several other museums in Leadville, some of which are in historic homes, such as Dexter Cabin and Healy House Museum, the House with the Eye Museum, and the Tabor Home. Other historic buildings in Leadville include Temple Israel, the oldest synagogue in the area, and the Tabor Opera House, which was one of the most expensive buildings in Colorado’s history.

Leadville skiing
Snowcats and their operators gathering for the annual Snowcat Jamboree in Leadville. Editorial credit: Zachj6497 / Shutterstock.com

Leadville also has numerous attractions for people seeking outdoor adventures. The Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, for example, offers epic cross-country skiing during the winter. In the summer, it becomes a mountain biker’s paradise. Another natural wonder can be found in the nearby Mosquito Mountain Range in the form of Mosquito Pass, which has an elevation of about 4,019 meters, making it the highest pass in the United States. The Pass also contains the largest concentration of old mines in the world. In fact, much of the old mining infrastructure built there still stands today.

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