The Lake County seat (1877, 10,152 feet) was born in a prospector's pan. The initial settlement of Oro City sprang up in 1860 along California Gulch as a gold camp. A decade later the black sand that had gummed gold miners' operations proved to be high-grade silver ore of lead carbonate and gave birth to Colorado's greatest silver city. By 1880 Leadville's 14,820 residents outnumbered those of every Colorado city save Denver. Two dozen surrounding camps and towns popped up as its satellites.
Charles Boettcher, the German immigrant who became Colorado's most prominent industrialist and philanthropist, got his start selling hardware in Leadville. Upon his arrival in 1879, Boettcher found “The Magic City” infested with “any number of reckless people, lounging around doing nothing, just living on excitement.… People were living right on the streets. Many had tents, log cabins, or mere shelters covered with brush. The place was so crowded you could barely wedge your way through.” Author Helen Hunt Jackson described Leadville as “a Monaco gambling room emptied into a Colorado spruce clearing.”
By the time it was two years old, Leadville had thirty sawmills and four brickyards to feed a building boom. Frame construction and the need for charcoal to fuel eighteen smelters denuded this mountain valley of its once dense spruce forests. A century later aspen trees are slowly reforesting the two-mile high site, for which Colorado's two highest peaks, Mt. Elbert (14,433 feet) and Mount Massive (14,421 feet) form an awesome backdrop.
In 1896 Leadville built one of Colorado's most fantastic structures, the Ice Palace, which masqueraded as a castle on a three-acre site. This frame and ice-block sculpture measured 325 by 180 feet with 90-foot-high crenelated entry towers. Dedicated, like prototypes in Moscow, Quebec City, and St. Paul, to winter fun, it contained skating and curling rinks, a dance floor, a restaurant, and gaming rooms. An early spring thaw melted this fantasy.
The highest and wildest of America's silver cities, Leadville still looks like a mining town. Pell-mell expansion over surrounding mine tunnels left the city plagued by disappearing back yards, sinking streets, and black holes that swallow everything thrown into them. After the last smelter closed in 1961, the slag pile at the south end of Harrison Avenue was used instead of sand and salt to fight ice and snow on the streets in winter.
Leadville has been a “git-and-git-out” town, where miners took out what they could find but put very little back into the community. The three railroads that rushed in during the early 1880s have all pulled out. Not until 1951 did Leadville build a citywide sewer system, and not until the 1980s were the sidewalks on Harrison Avenue aligned, in a main street facelift that unearthed multiple levels of wooden sidewalks. Residents distinguish between the sunny and shady sides of the street, the climate being such that people on one side could be mowing their lawns while those on the other shovel snow.
Leadville's population sank by 1990 to 2,629, but the callused mining town refuses to knuckle under. One of Colorado's few National Historic Landmark Districts, Leadville is gradually recycling its rich history and architectural heritage to attract tourists. The main street, Harrison Avenue (U.S. 24), is lined with rare (for Colorado) Second Empire buildings, while residential side streets feature extravagant Carpenter's Gothic homes, such as those at 119 West 3rd Street and 208 West 6th Street; Mollie May's Brothel, at 131 West 5th Street; and the House with an Eye, named for its eyebrow dormer with an eye painted on the window glass (1879, Eugène Robitaille), 134 West 4th Street. The town is particularly notable for many frame miners' cottages with exuberant Carpenter's Gothic entries, porches, and bays on the facades of what might otherwise be called shacks.
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