LEADVILLE, Colo. — Tens of thousands of tourists visit this historic, scenic town annually to savor a bit of Old West culture, but few realize that Leadville also influenced the economics, politics and pop culture of the rest of the country.
Leadville is best known as a 19th-century mining boomtown, first for gold, then silver, then lead, copper, zinc and molybdenum. Prospectors went from rags to riches — and often back to rags. A political sex scandal involving adultery and bigamy, steamy even by 21st-century standards, shocked Victorian America and still titillates tourists today.
Moreover, the seeds of the women’s rights movement, the labor movement and female entrepreneurship sprouted here earlier than elsewhere.
“Leadville certainly had an impact on the development of the rest of the country,” said Maureen Scanlon, a nurse from Pennsylvania who settled here in 1999 and is now director of the Healy House and Dexter Cabin museums, which reflect the opulence of those who struck it rich. “The money from here paved the way for early [business] pioneers to take their money elsewhere and fine-tune their businesses. The Guggenheims were miners here. [Meyer Guggenheim] had seven sons, and he made them all work in the mines and learn the business from the ground up.
“David May started a clothing store here and partnered with Daniels and Fisher to form a huge conglomerate of department stores. Their descendant today is Foley’s.”
“Charles Dow, of Dow Jones, had his first stock exchange on the first floor of the Tabor Opera House,” added Sam McGeorge, a geological engineer from Montana and executive director of the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. “From here, he went back to New York. The formation of the West was based on mining camps and cattle. That’s why people came out West. Leadville is where the jet set of the 1870s and 1880s came.”
Two Leadville legends were J.J. Brown, who struck it rich with his Little Jonny Mine, and his wife, a seamstress from Missouri named Margaret Tobin. They bought a mansion in Denver, where Mrs. Brown became active in civic causes and the women’s suffrage movement. She won added fame by surviving the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
Three decades after her death in 1932, Meredith Willson renamed her and immortalized her on stage and screen as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
“Molly Brown is definitely overlooked,” said Mrs. Scanlon. “She was never Molly; she was Margaret. The Little Jonny was one of the biggest producers. She spoke several languages and was self-educated. She was very much the philanthropist.”
Of all the Leadville legends of fabulous fortunes, none is more notorious than the love triangle of Horace Tabor; his first wife, Augusta; and his second, “Baby Doe.”
The Tabors came here from Maine during the gold boom in the 1860s, opened a hardware store and flourished. When he invested in a silver mine that struck it rich in the 1870s, they became wealthy beyond their dreams.
Mr. Tabor became beguiled by a beautiful 19-year-old divorcee from Wisconsin, Elizabeth McCourt Doe. Because of her cherubic face, miners nicknamed her “Baby,” and the sobriquet Baby Doe stuck for life.
Mr. Tabor, then lieutenant governor of Colorado, obtained a divorce and married Baby Doe. Augusta Tabor successfully contested the divorce as fraudulent, making Mr. Tabor a bigamist.
He obtained a legal divorce just as he was appointed to a 30-day vacancy in the U.S. Senate. He and Baby Doe were remarried in the Willard Hotel in Washington in 1883.
“President [Chester A.] Arthur was at their wedding,” Mrs. Scanlon said.
Mr. Tabor’s tawdry personal life ended his political career, but the wealth from his Matchless Mine built much of Leadville. Lavish buildings such as the Grand Hotel, designed by architect George King, and the Tabor Opera House, then the largest between St. Louis and San Francisco, remain tourist attractions, as does the Matchless Mine.
In 1893, when Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which removed silver as the backing for the dollar, the price of silver plummeted. The effect on Leadville was the same the oil bust of the 1980s had on places like Midland, Texas, or Tulsa, Okla. Leadville’s population at the height of the boom was about 40,000; today, it is 2,800.
Mr. Tabor and many local high rollers went bankrupt. He became the postmaster, and died in 1899. Baby Doe Tabor never remarried, and lived out her life in poverty in a crude cabin next to the Matchless Mine, dying there in 1935. Her life inspired Douglas Moore’s 1956 opera, “The Ballad of Baby Doe.”
Ironically, Augusta Tabor, who received only $250,000 of their $11 million fortune in the divorce settlement, thrived.
“She’s another Leadville icon who’s overlooked,” Mrs. Scanlon said. “She moved to Denver and invested in the home version of the Singer sewing machine, which did very well. When she died [in 1893], she was worth $1.5 million. She never forgot the people of Leadville. She would buy coats and hats for the children in winter.”
That was because little of the wealth from the mines trickled down to the men who toiled in them. The recent tragedy at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah was a grim reminder that after 120 years, extracting treasure from the earth remains a high-risk endeavor.
Mr. McGeorge said silver miners worked in Dickensian conditions 12 hours a day, six days a week, for $1 a day. He estimated that “six or seven” miners died annually. In the early 1890s, the miners struck.
“It was violent,” he said. “The National Guard was called out. There were some fatalities, but it depends on whom you’re reading as to how many. This was one of the first places to establish a mining union.”
After 18 months, the owners agreed to increase pay to $3 a day, which coincided with the silver collapse.
“It was a double whammy,” Mr. McGeorge said. “The price dropped in half and labor costs tripled. That was the end of silver production in Leadville.”
Mining for lead and other minerals kept Leadville alive into the 20th century, when it was discovered that it had one of the world’s greatest deposits of molybdenum, used to strengthen steel and as a dry lubricant.
“During World War I, they studied captured German weapons and saw that their steel was stronger,” Mr. McGeorge related. “The reason was molybdenum.”
Molybdenum was extracted at the Climax Mine until 1986, when surpluses dropped the price to $3 a pound. In 1999, when lead ore dropped to $42 a ton, the last of the lead and zinc mines closed, costing hundreds of jobs.
Like other 19th-century boomtowns, such as Tombstone, Ariz., and Deadwood, S.D., Leadville now survives largely on 21st-century tourism. Upscale yuppies from both coasts browse for antiques and collectibles at pricey boutiques along Harrison Avenue, slake their thirsts in 130-year-old saloons and stay in quaint Victorian bed and breakfasts. More than 70 downtown blocks of Leadville comprise a National Historic Landmark District.
Mining may not be dead, however. Mr. McGeorge said the Climax Mine is scheduled to reopen in 2009, as molybdenum is now $30 a pound, and “there are still uses that are being developed.”
Meanwhile, he said, lead ore has jumped to $160 a ton, and “people are looking at it.” He hinted that with silver at $13 an ounce, it is even possible that the long-closed silver mines could be re-examined.
“No one has really looked at the silver in this area since 1893,” he said.
“Leadville is one of the few places on Earth where there’s metal in sufficient concentrations to warrant mining. The tourist economy isn’t going away, but the people around here would like to see mining as at least a part of the local economy. It’s part of our heritage.”