As the story goes, anybody who was anybody had been to Leadville, Colorado, in the 1890s, a Victorian-era mining town just 38 miles southeast of Vail. Surrounded on three sides by the jagged peaks and valleys of the San Isabel National Forest, at 10,152 feet above sea level, the town, the highest in the United States, is sometimes referred to as Cloud City or Two-Mile-High-City. And with views of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mt. Elbert (14,333 ft.) and Mt. Massive (14,421 ft.), the Leadville skyline is magnificent.
Leadville is a quiet little town with a history that’s, literally, one for the storybooks. These days the population is about 2,600 but, at one time, more than 40,000 people lived here; the stories about some of them fabled. In fact, it’s because of those “fables” which have been repeated through the years – and perhaps sometimes exaggerated – that Leadville pays homage to those pioneers with its annual Boom Day Celebration – a celebration that, in some ways, brings out a bit of raucousness in those who attend.
And, oh what fun it is! It all began in 1877 at the start of the Colorado Silver Boom, when the town was founded by mine owners, Horace Tabor and August Meyer. Initially, the settlement was called “Slabtown”. But when a post office opened, the name Leadville was officially chosen; the carriers went down to Denver one week and tried to return the next. The first daily newspaper, The Chronicle, was founded, and despite many threats, soon began outing criminals in an effort to clean up the shady goings-on that soon began in nascent town.
The first saloon opened for business in 1877 and that same year, Leadville’s first theatre, The Coliseum Novelty, too, opened and offered a variety of entertainment including dancing girls, dogfights, cockfighting, wrestling and boxing matches as well as rooms for gambling. The first legitimate theatre, the Wood’s Opera House, was soon built and, with one thousand seats, was a first-class concert hall where “gentlemen removed their hats and didn’t smoke or drink in the presence of a lady.”
By 1878, the town, with its booming population, had the reputation as one of the most lawless towns in the West. Leadville’s first city marshal was run out of town a few days after he was appointed, and his replacement was shot dead by a deputy within a month. Meyer, who was then the mayor brought in a bold gunfighter named Matt Duggan who, with lawless tactics, brought order to Leadville. Within two years, the town had innumerable stores, hotels, boarding houses, more than 100 saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors and over 30 brothels. At the same time, over 70 lawyers were trying to keep their clients’ lives on the right track.
Along with the ruffians who lived in Leadville, an upper-class developed that would eventually bring a flurry of excitement and notoriety to this storied town. And the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad that brought tons of freight and thousands of people of every echelon to the bustling town.
Tabor, who owned the general store with his wife, Augusta, invested in mining and had incredible success with their Matchless Mine. In 1879, they built the Tabor Opera House as well as the Bank of Leadville and the Tabor Grand Hotel. Over the years, the opera house hosted a staggering plethora of talent including the great actress, Sarah Bernhard; world-famous magician Harry Houdini; composer and conductor, John Philip Sousa; playwright, Oscar Wilde and an assortment of many other operatic performers.
However, in 1883, Tabor divorced his wife of 25 years, to marry the beautiful, flamboyant, “Baby Doe” McCourt, a woman who was said to have “defied Victorian gender values,” and was half his age. This caused a scandal in Colorado and beyond, considering that, by then, Tabor was a senator and one of the wealthiest men in Colorado. However, Tabor lost his fortune in the Panic of 1893, when a spectacular financial crisis contributed to an economic recession.
Convinced that the price of silver would rebound, Tabor told Baby Doe to hold on to the Matchless Mine as “it will make millions again when silver comes back.” Doe spent the rest of her life believing in Tabor’s prediction, living in a cabin at the mine for three decades. In 1935, after a snowstorm, Doe was found frozen in her cabin. She was 81 years old.
Other future millionaires, too, showed up in Leadville to get in on the action. David May, who eventually would found May D & F, opened an auction house and clothing store, later buying out his biggest competitor. German immigrant, Charles Boettcher, provided blasting powder needed for blasting away part of the mountains to build mines and tunnels. He later founded the Ideal Cement Company and, later, the Boettcher Foundation, which has built many cultural attractions in Denver, including Boettcher Concert Hall and the Denver Botanic Gardens. The Guggenheims and Marshal Fields, also had Leadville beginnings.
But, it’s really the colorful characters who added so much vibrancy to Leadville’s boom days. Alice Ivers, known as “Poker Alice,” a card player and dealer of the Old West, learned her trade in Leadville. She and her family moved to the town during the silver boom when hundreds of others arrived. At age 20, Alice married a mining engineer who, like many other men, frequented Leadville’s gambling halls. At first, she just observed the games, but eventually took her place at the table. After her husband died in a mining accident, Alice, with cigar in hand, played cards to support herself and, eventually, was in great demand as a dealer. Of course, the fact that she was very attractive and dressed in the latest fashions certainly helped and, for that reason, the gambling halls thought she was good for business.
Margaret, “Molly” Brown, who was known as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, moved to Leadville when she was 15. In 1896 she married James J. Brown, who was twice her age and instrumental in the discovery of a substantial ore seam at the Little Jonny Mine owned by his employers, the Ibex Mining Company. Molly became famous because of her survival of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, after persuading the crew of Lifeboat No. 6 to look for survivors. The Broadway musical and movie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, is based on her life.
Billy the Kid and John W. Booth, whose headstone is in the Evergreen Cemetery, spent time in Leadville along with a gunfighter and professional gambler, Luke Short. But, probably, Doc Holliday’s stay in Leadville is the most infamous. A good friend of Wyatt Earp, Holliday was a notorious gunman and gambler and the town offered him the fast-paced action the he enjoyed. He had some friends in Leadville, and was looking forward to fattening his bankroll at some of the classy gambling parlors. But, the town’s climate hindered Holliday’s health. Its cold weather brought his tuberculosis out of remission and that, coupled with his drinking made him very weak.
In August of 1884, records indicate that Holliday shot and wounded an ex-Leadville policeman from whom he had borrowed $5, but was toobroke to pay back. Holliday was released and, penniless, his bail of $8,000 was raised by his wealthy friends. Allen was the last man that Holliday shot.
So, it’s these colorful cast of characters the ne’er-do-wells, the fortune seekers, the gamblers, even the millionaires – that passed through Leadville during those rip-roaring years that today’s residents of Leadville honor in their Boom Day Celebration, a celebration of the Old West. From a parade, to burro racing, and mining activities, to a pie-eating contest, a sack race and much more, the town commemorates its past the first weekend in August. Essentially, it’s a three-day party that pays homage to Leadville’s boom days which, essentially, was a fifteen-year party!
The manic thrill of those frenzied years is long gone – but its fascinating history is still very much alive. Never to be forgotten.