Wild West-Leadville Colorado

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Leadville Colorado personifies the wild wild west!  It is the highest incorporated city in the continental U.S.  It was originally called "Cloud City".

It's easy to imagine yourself in another time as you walk down the streets of Leadville.  It's an area so steeped in history that you can almost feel the ghosts of the past walking beside you.

If you watch alongside the road to Leadville from Buena Vista, you can still see the old stagecoach road. Just off to the side of the old stagecoach road there is a grave marker.  In 1879 gold was shipped via stagecoach between Leadville and Buena Vista, the times and dates of the shipments was kept secret, however the coach was still being robbed quite often. Local officials were stumped as to how the robber knew when the shipments were going out.  They set up an ambush just outside of what is now known as Balltown. The stage came and the robber jumped down from the rocks and was met by the lawmen and was shot to death.  They were in for a big surprise however, when they removed the robbers hood, one of the lawmen discovered that the robber was his wife! The man was so ashamed and shocked that he couldn't handle taking her body back to town so he buried her there beside the road.  The marker reads: "My Wife, Jane Kirkham, Died March 7,1879, aged 38 years 3 months 7 days".  The marker is easily seen from Hwy 24.

Leadville began in 1860 when Abe Lee discovered gold in California Gulch. (note: there is another California Gulch down by Silverton CO). This brought in prospectors by the thousands.  Fortunes were made overnight. By 1877 silver had been discovered and this was the beginning of the "Silver Kings", includinig Horace Tabor, David May, J.J. & Margaret Brown (Margaret AKA the unsinkable Molly Brown from the Titanic), and the Guggenheim and the Boettcher families.  There are many infamous people that walked the streets of Leadville, gunfighters like Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson,  The Younger gang, Jesse James, Harry Houdini, John Phillips Sousa, and others.

Colorado's most famous couple lived here, and theirs is a love triangle story.  Horace was born April 6, 1830 in Holland VT.  At the age of 19 he left home to work the stone quarries in Mass. and Maine.  In Augusta Maine he was hired by Wm. B, Pierce who would soon become his father-in-law. Augusta Pierce was one of 7 daughters and 3 sons born to Wm. Pierce and Lucy Eaton.  The Pierce's were a middle class family, and Augusta was considered a fragile child, but was very strong willed.   

In 1855 Horace moved to Kansas and became a member of the Immigrant Aid Society, an anti-slavery group, he homesteaded land on Deep Creed in Riley county that is to this day known as Tabor Valley.  His hard work and determination got him a seat on the "Free Soil" legislature which sat in defiance of local government during a period of civil unrest.  In early 1857 he returned to Maine to marry Augusta Pierce and take her to Kansas.  Augusta hated it. There were rattlesnakes and wild indians to deal with on a regular basis. She was often in tears over the situation. But she made the best of it for the next 2 years until Horace began to hear the stories of gold in Colorado.   So in the spring of 1859 they left Kansas with thier baby son Maxey. They walked across the plains of Kansas and into Nebraska then to Denver.  Horace Tabor said of the walk along the Republican River trail that it was "the acme of barrenness and desolation". 

Horace tried the fields closest to Denver at first then decided to try his luck higher into the mountains and in the spring of 1860 headed to Leadville.  They decided their journey across the plains of Kansas was much easier than the journey to Leadville.  They drug wagons over steep mountain passes, still covered with snow and at times when they stopped for the night, they could still see the remnants of their campfire from the previous night.   Augusta cleaned their clothes in icy streams and at one point almost lost her life along with that of her son when moving across a stream, fast moving water lifted the wagon and started moving it downstream. When the men rescued them, she collapsed, unconscious.   Augusta was the first woman known to have come into the Leadville area,  she grabbed the miners hearts by becoming the camp cook, laundress, postmaster and banker. She used scales they had brought with them to weigh the gold dust.

The 1st summer gave them enough money to buy more land in KS and return to Maine for the winter. They returned in the spring of 1861. they became known as "sturdy merchants by the miners.  In 1878 Tabor grubstaked 2 miners for 17.00 and in 1878 struck it rich.   Augusta was the "saver" in the family and didn't handle having wealth very well at all. When Horace built the Tabor mansion, she refused to sleep in the master bedroom and instead took a small room in the servants quarters off the kitchen. She also kept a cow tied to the porch near the front door and insisted on milking it herself.  Tabor was now Lt Gov of the state and this embarrassed him. He'd worked hard and now wanted to enjoy life and spend his millions. She refused to change her mode of dress and her way of doing things.  Horace began to "enjoy the favors" of other beautiful women, showering them with gifts and jewels.  In 1880 at the Saddle Rock Cafe, Horace met a beautiful, lively young divorcee by the name of Elizabeth McCourt "Baby" Doe.   It was love at first site. He put her up at the hotel next to the Tabor Opera House and thier affair took off.   In 1881 Horace asked Augusta for a divorce, she refused, so he secretly went to Durango and filed for divorce which was later found to be illegal. In 1882 he and Baby Doe  snuck off to St. Louis MO and were secretly married, by the time Augusta found out, it was too late to contest it.  Horace continued to seek a divorce from Augusta who fought it at every turn. She also asked for maintanance claiming that Horace was worth over 9 million, (his worth was actually closer to only 3 million).  After a long battle, Augusta was awarded 100,000 a month, the Denver mansion and other properties belonging to the couple.  She moved to Pasedena CA and lived as a respectable, wealthy and very lonely woman. She died in 1895 leaving her son over 1.5 million.

On March 1 1883 Horace and Baby Doe were married in a very scandalous ceremony in Washington D.C. where he was serving a short time in Congress. The wedding was attended by members of Congress and the President, but thier wives refused to attend the "disgraceful" event.  It made headlines across the country.  Upon their return to Denver Tabor built a block long mansion for her, but she soon found out that it took more than just wealth to be accepted by Denver's high society.  She was shunned by society in Denver and embellished stories about her behavior were the gossip of the day. The fairytale ended in 1893 when the silver crash came, and Horace, who refused to diversify his holdings lost everything.  At age 65 Horace was shoveling slag from nearby mines making a whopping $3.00 a day.  In 1899 he came down with appendicitis and died.  Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, and at age 38 Baby Doe would never again live in comfort. She was determined the the Matchless mine would again produce and moved into the old tool shed located next to the mine. She lived there in poverty for the next 35 years until she was found frozen to death in 1935.

Doc Holliday had his last gunfight in Leadville against his old enemy Billy Allen in Hymans Saloon.  There were a lot of witnesses but on March 28th 1885 a jury found him "Not Guilty".

In 1896 the Leadville Ice Palace was built, it was formed out of 8 foot thick blocks of ice.  It was built in 36 days and took 5000 tons of ice to complete. It held a ballroom, a dance floor, a gaming room and a carousel house. The townspeople were desperate for something to boost the economy of the town. They came up with the plans for the ice palace which was named the Crystal Palace, and had dreams of people flocking in from all over to see it. Construction began on Nov 1, 1895 with a crew of 250 men working day and night. The palace was 58,000 square feet, and encompassed 5 acres of ground. The towers reached 90 feet high and 40 feet wide! The grand opening took place on New Years Day  1896. The palace was a sight to see. It had electric lights inside, 18 inch trout frozen into the blocks of ice on the walls, and american beauty roses. At night it was lit from the outside by multicolored prismatic lights. Visitors arriving at night were awe-struck!  (Note: It's too bad there was no such thing as color photography at that time-I'd love to see a photo of it all lit up!).  Admission was 50 cents for Adults 25 cents for 12 and under. It was a carnival like atmosphere, the smells of popcorn popping throughout the palace , the merry go round, the awe of the place. The Crystal Palace had over 250,000 visitors while it stood. Unfortunately, ice melts, the palace was condemned on 28 March 1896, although the ice skating rink stayed busy until June. The last big event in the ice palace took place on 1 May 1896, it was a big mayday celebration. The Ice Palace was a financial disaster for the investors and plans to reproduce it every year were scrapped. 

I could write hundreds of pages on Leadville and never run out of content.  Most of the original buildings are still in use today, it's one of those "must see" places.


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Dena Stevens
Rocky Mountain Realty - Canon City, CO
Putting The Real Into Realtor Since 2004
Everything I learned about Leadville I learned from you and Debbie Reynolds ( Molly Brown).
May 10, 2007 04:43 PM #1
Bill Somerset
Re/Max Realty Group - Dover, NH
ABR, e-PRO - Realtor - NH Real Estate Agent
Oh it brings back some memories.  I was fortunate enough to live in Leaville for 4 months during my summer internship at Copper Mountain Resort.  That was a summer I will never forget!
Jan 23, 2008 04:10 AM #2
Steve Scheer
Realty Oasis - Metro Brokers - Highlands Ranch, CO
Highlands Ranch Real Estate - Denver Real Estate
Bonnie, We always stop in Leadville after our visits to Turquoise Lake.  Its one of the highlights for everyone after our camping adventurous are over. 
Jan 23, 2008 07:41 AM #3
Evelyn Turvey

I lived outside Leadville back in 1966-67 when my husband worked in the Climax MIne. I walked the boardwalks, visitedThe Haley House museum, shopped at an old hardware, went to a movie in a theatre that is long gone and even got to see a dress adorened with real silver dollars in a picture of a woman hanging on the wall in an old saloon. I have visited Leadville several times over the years. I love the history and especially enjoyed your written article. Hope you write more. Thanks for the memories!

Sep 15, 2015 02:52 PM #4
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Bonnie Marie DeWolfe

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