The city in the clouds
By Debi Boucher
While no longer bustling with the frantic activity of the silver mines, bawdy saloons and dancehalls, Leadville is arguably one of the best examples of a still breathing boom town to be found in Colorado today. In 1893 the city boasted 60,000 residents, and is still home to some 3,000 hearty souls willing to brave winter at 10,200 feet in elevation. Surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the country. Over 50 significant 19th century buildings grace downtown Leadville, including the Tabor Opera House, once the largest this side of the Mississippi, and the still operating grand Victorian Delaware Hotel built in 1886. A walk down Harrison Avenue is a delightful journey into a bygone era.
The ‘Route of the Silver Kings’ is a 20 square mile auto, hiking and bicycle tour along the Mineral Belt of Leadville’s Historic Mining District east of town. Maps for the tour are available throughout town, and guide visitors through the mines and small mining towns that dotted the area in the silver boom heyday. One such settlement is Finn Town. Originally settled by English miners and later with Finns, Finn Town had its own mercantile and saloons, and a few cabins are still standing today. The Matchless Mine is now a small museum and offers tours that share the story of the famous Baby Doe and her husband, Horace Tabor. Should you travel to Leadville in the spring, or the mud season as it’s known to Leadvillites, be cautious about taking side roads as they may not be plowed and the mud can be treacherous. I know this because I took one, and if not for the vehicle I was driving, I would probably still be there!
Determined to preserve its history, Leadville is home to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum which opened in 1987 in the original 1890’s Leadville High School building. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to tour the museum as additions over the years have brought the museum to over 70,000 square feet of displays, including wonderful dioramas. Take a walk through the Hard Rock Mine Exhibit, a realistic replica of a mine tunnel, blacksmith shop, assay office and more. The museum also offers amazing displays of minerals and crystals from the Smithsonian Institute and private collections, as well as impressive gold specimens from each of the 17 states that had important gold discoveries. The Hall of Fame honors those men and women who have made significant contributions to mining both in the past and in the present. Outside of the museum is a marvelous 9 foot tall marble sculpture depicting two miners called “Mining the Pulse of Civilization.” The marble for the sculpture was donated by the Yule Marble Quarry in Marble, Colo.
© Debi Boucher.
According to the Lake County Visitor Center, Leadville is host to more museums per capita than any other city. You will not want to miss the Healy House & Dexter Cabin, The Heritage Museum and Gallery, the Historic Tabor Opera House, and the Tabor Home. And don’t pass up the two-and-a-half hour Scenic Train Trip aboard the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad that takes you another 1,000 feet above the valley floor!
There are plenty of restaurants and antique shops to browse in downtown Leadville. Famous for its outstanding breakfasts, owner Dave Wright tells me the Golden Burro has been open since 1938 without ever closing its doors. A live webcam inside the restaurant is a big hit with locals and tourists alike. Housed in the ‘Quincy Block’ built in 1879, Quincy’s is a must for an $8.95 6 oz. filet dinner Sunday thru Thursday, or an 8 oz. prime rib for $10.95 served on Friday and Saturday nights. Larger cuts are available also, and Nancy says their one item menu is a huge summer success each year.
If a nature fix is what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Just 20 minutes outside of Leadville are the magnificently picturesque Twin Lakes, Colorado’s largest glacial lakes. Get there early in the morning to photograph the snow capped reflection of our two tallest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. They are a breath taking sight in the still, clear blue calm of an early morning. The honey colored sunset is worth the wait here, too! This area too, is rich in history. The village of Twin Lakes became a thriving tourist destination in the early 1880s, and Interlaken, a hotel on the south shore of the smaller lake, was a famous resort catering to the wealthy of the day. Endless opportunities abound for outdoor recreation in the Twin Lakes area. Fishing, camping and boating are the obvious choices, but countless miles of hiking trails and mountain climbing are there to enjoy as well. Named in honor of the men who trained at Camp Hale during World War II, the 10th Mountain Huts manages a system of 29 back country huts connected by 350 miles of routes for skiing, mountain biking, and hiking with safe and comfortable shelters along the way.
A favorite for anglers, Turquoise Lake is located just a short distance from town and offers a choice of eight campgrounds with 300 campsites and two boat ramps. At the end of the day, roast your mackinaw, rainbow, or brook trout over the campfire and lean back and relax under the star canopied sky. The facilities are closed over the winter, but many come for the season’s ice fishing. Stunning views of Mount Massive and the Holy Cross Wilderness surround this lovely lake, wrapping it in pristine and peaceful serenity.
© Debi Boucher.
They say golf balls travel 10 percent farther at 10,200 feet. Find out if it’s true at the Mt. Massive Golf Course. Leadville sits just below the Arkansas River headwaters – try your luck at gold panning, or perhaps a guided fly fishing trip with Colorado Fly Fishing Guides. White water rafting, kayaking, mountain climbing and skiing are other popular activities available in the area. If you visit in August, be sure to schedule your trip around Leadville’s Boom Days. Honored by the U.S. Congress as a Local Legacy Event, town folk dress in costumes of the day, mining competitions separate the men from the boys, and don’t be surprised if a gunfight breaks out or a showdown suddenly erupts in the center of town!
Debi Boucher is a freelance writer and photographer based in Colorado Springs.
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