Leadville: City in the Clouds

By Mike Rosso

Photo by Mike Rosso
Photo by Mike Rosso

It’s the highest incorporated city in North America. Towering nearby at 14,440 feet is Mount Elbert, the second-highest summit in the contiguous United States, after Mount Whitney. It is home to seven museums and a famous old opera house among its 70 city blocks of Victorian buildings.
Just for kicks, the residents haul tons of snow onto their main street in March in order to watch skiers – towed by horses – racing by. They also hold a St. Patrick’s “practice parade” in September. The outgoing mayor has an alligator skin adorning his office. Leadville also boasts the highest college campus in the U.S., as well as the highest golf course, brewery, Safeway store, tourist railroad, hospital, high school, Chinese restaurant, airport (at 9,934 feet), city hall, dog park, bank, police station, fish hatchery, library, newspaper, bike shop, antique store, and ironically, the highest legal marijuana dispensary in an incorporated U.S. city.
Historically, Leadville has a rich, colorful and extensive past – from its founding by Horace Tabor and August Meyer during the Colorado Silver Boom, to its current status as a tourist town, blue-collar town and bedroom community for employees of Summit County.

The area was first settled in 1859, with the founding of Oro City in 1860, which at one point had nearly 5,000 residents but never became a major settlement, due to a placer mine gold bust. But by 1880, Leadville boasted a population of more than 15,000, with 30 mines and 10 smelting plants producing gold, silver and lead amounting to $15,000,000 annually.
During WWII, the nearby Climax Mine produced molybdenum, used to harden steel; it is still operating today.
The Leadville National Historic Landmark District was designated in 1961 and includes 67 mines in the mining district east of the city. A number of structures along Harrison Avenue are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Tabor Opera House, which was built in 1879 by Horace Tabor, may soon find a new owner: the city itself, if a deal with the current owner goes through by October 2016. The price tag is $600,000, but it could cost twice that to bring the three-story structure up to snuff. The prominent building on Harrison Avenue was constructed of stone, brick and iron and was trimmed with Portland cement, with solid brick walls that stand 16 inches thick.  It once hosted stars as varied as Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, Oscar Wilde and Anna Held.
Today, Leadville is a major center for mountain recreation. There are the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike and running races. Ski Cooper, which has its origins from Camp Hale, was built as the training site for the ski troopers of the famed 10th Mountain Division during WWII. The Tennessee Pass Nordic Center and the 11.6-mile, non-motorized Mineral Belt Trail are here. There is also the famous pack burro race, held during Boom Days in early August, and the Mount Massive Mush dogsled races, held the same weekend as the big ski joring event in March. The Buffalo Peaks, Mount Massive and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Areas are all within a few miles of Leadville.
“We have a good mojo going,” said outgoing mayor Jaime Stuever. “What we do in Leadville is the highest, so we like to capitalize on that.”
Stuever, who moved to Leadville from South Florida (he’s the guy with the trophy alligator hide on the wall of his office), promised his wife he would only serve one term if elected and has held to that. When they first arrived, they purchased the home of former governor Jesse McDonald, where they rent out guest suites. A former member of the planning and zoning commission as well as city council, Stuever is very enthusiastic about the future of his adopted city. “There is a lot of enthusiasm here right now.” he says. “Now it’s time for folks to come and get it, come enjoy it!”
“The progress in our town is marvelous,” said mayor-elect and former city council member Greg Labbe. “We have a school district that has blossomed into a first-rate system, a college that is growing and participates in the community, forward-thinking city and county governments that serve our community well, a ski resort that is ever improving, and young, vibrant leaders who care deeply for our city and work hard to make this a special place to live and raise their families.”
Asked what he sees as Leadville’s greatest challenge moving forward, Labbe said, “As with many small mountain towns, a strong effort toward economic development, but still protecting our history and heritage, is a balancing act. We need quality of life, but we dare not give up our souls in the process.”
Any visitor to Leadville will quickly recognize that the city is not giving up its soul anytime soon. It’s got a ton of soul to spare. g