Leadville leads in quality and variety

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Museums – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville has been called a lot of things over the years. Some nicknames — Two-Mile-High City, Cloud City, Magic City — are picturesque; many others are unprintable.

A rarely mentioned, but truly deserved, sobriquet is “Museum Capital of Colorado.” With more than half a dozen such attractions, Leadville offers about one museum for every 500 residents, which might qualify it as “Per-Capita Museum Leader of the Observable Universe.” And one museum even doubles as the temporal lodging for the city’s resident deity, a friendly, bearded individual who goes by the name of L.G. (“Living God”) Cosmos.

For more than a century, Leadville was to mining towns what the Rolling Stones were to rock ‘n’ roll bands — the biggest, richest, gaudiest, longest-lasting, and wickedest of them all.

But with mining in decline today, Leadville has found renewed fortune in its rich history, displayed through its many museums. Several are dedicated to the life and times of H.A.W. Tabor, whose bizarre and dramatic saga would keep even the most hard-boiled soap opera fans on the edge of their seats.

Nowhere is the Tabor name more lovingly maintained than at the Tabor Opera House.

In 1955, Evelyn E. Livingston Furman decided that someone should care enough about Tabor’s contributions and legacy to preserve the opera house. So she convinced her mother to buy the massive, three-story building.

“I’ll always remember one man telling me, ‘You should be shot for making your mother spend all her money on this place,'” the 81-year-old Furman recalls. “Everyone thought we were crazy to take on such a project.”

But Furman, who became sole owner of the opera house after her mother’s death in 1965, proved the skeptics wrong.

The author of three books about the opera house and the Tabor family, Furman relishes relating the saga of Horace Austin Warren Tabor, who built an opera house to bring culture to a rough-and-tumble mining town.

When the opera house opened on Nov. 20, 1879, the 49-year-old Tabor had been married to Augusta for 22 years, but he was smitten with Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt Doe, a 25-year-old divorcée known as “Baby Doe” for her delicate beauty. After a bitter — and controversial — divorce, Tabor married Baby Doe.

THE SCANDALS from his rather messy personal life overshadowed Tabor’s numerous civic contributions and destroyed his budding political career. Baby Doe’s “colorful” past further distanced the couple from proper Victorian society.

Visitors to the opera house can examine Tabor memorabilia, take a self-guided auditorium tour (enhanced by Furman’s recorded narrative) and even stand on the same stage where Oscar Wilde, John Philip Sousa, Anna Held, and Harry Houdini once performed.

Furman, who moved to Leadville in 1933, occasionally saw the last living participant in the Tabor Triangle trudging back to what is now another popular Leadville museum, the Matchless Mine.

For 35 years, Baby Doe lived in a tiny cabin near the headframe and hoist room at the Matchless, a silver mine which made more than $10 million for the Tabors during its 14 years of operation. She apparently took her husband’s apocryphal deathbed words to heart, for she did, indeed, “Hold onto the Matchless,” relinquishing it only when her frozen body was found on the cabin floor in 1935.

Today, visitors to the Matchless can easily imagine the harsh life Baby Doe endured for 35 years before her death at age 80. Although the cabin was ransacked and looted shortly after Baby Doe died, original items belonging to the Tabors have since been donated to the museum and are currently displayed there.

Like Evelyn Furman, Leadville native and Matchless Mine owner “Smiles” Doyle, 82, remembers Baby Doe. The elderly, shabbily dressed woman frequently stopped at his home (the last house on the 600 block of Sixth Street) as she returned to her cabin after walking to Leadville.

“She was real friendly, especially if she knew you,” recalls Doyle, a former state mine inspector. “And she knew me. She always liked to talk about mining.”

Baby Doe’s travels through Leadville certainly took her past the Tabor Home, a charming, two-story frame house which Horace built for Augusta in 1877. Tabor family furniture, photographs and mementos are displayed in the home, which was recently sold and is closed to the public this summer while renovations take place.

Leadville’s mining history, past and present, comes together at the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. Housed in a 70,000-square-foot renovated Victorian schoolhouse which dates to 1896, the federally chartered NMHF&M showcases the importance of mining to Leadville, to Colorado, and to the nation.

THE THREE-STORY MUSEUM is filled with spectacular crystal and mineral specimens, antique mining equipment, historical photographs and documents, hand-carved dioramas, and informative displays on modern mining.

Among its more unusual exhibits is a life-sized, remarkably authentic replica of a hardrock (underground) mine. Designed by Leadville native, mining veteran, and NMHF&M president and executive director Carl Miller, the mine features a blacksmith shop, hoist room, mine station and drift (horizontal mine tunnel). Like its real-life inspiration, the drift is damp, cool, narrow, and dimly lit, with dirt and pebble-strewn floors and realistic rock walls with exposed ore veins. Lengths of light mine-gauge track (used in working mines to carry ore carts) wind through the drift, passing ore chutes, drills, ore carts, and powder magazines.

The mine replica opens into the Gold Rush Room, with its impressive collection of gold ore from 14 states and Canada. Its crown jewel is a magnificent 23-ounce specimen of native gold found in 1892 at Leadville’s Little Jonny Mine.

Down the hill, the Heritage Museum is a treasure trove of Leadville history and memorabilia. Owned and operated by the Lake County Civic Center Association, the Heritage houses thousands of priceless artifacts, from Victorian clothing, antique bottles, and books, to pot-bellied stoves, brass beds, historic photographs, frontier mining tools — and Baby Doe’s grand piano.

Among its most memorable exhibits are those devoted to the 10th Mountain Division, the World War II ski troopers who trained at nearby Camp Hale, and a detailed, 8×10-foot scale model of Leadville’s famed 1896 Ice Palace. Built (of StyrofoamTM) by Denver resident Frank Goris, it is flanked by historic photographs of the original Ice Palace, which went the way of all ice during an unanticipated early thaw.

The lifestyle of Leadville’s elite, along with daily life in a turn-of-the-century boardinghouse, are depicted at the Healy House and Dexter Cabin, operated by the Colorado Historical Society.

The 1878 Healy House was the focus of society gatherings before its conversion, 19 years later, into a boardinghouse for genteel schoolmarms.

Elegantly appointed rooms feature jewel-toned stained-glass windows, velvet and lace wall hangings, marble-topped tables, elaborate fireplaces, Oriental rugs, and some of Colorado’s finest Victorian furnishings and accessories. A guide in period costume conducts visitors through the first-floor parlor, dining room, and kitchen, while tours of the two upper stories are self-guided.

Next door is the 1879 Dexter Cabin (moved from its original location on West Third Street), once owned by Denver mining millionaire James V. Dexter.

The rough-hewn log exterior of Dexter’s two-room “home away from home” belies an opulent interior with black walnut and white oak floors, and wall coverings stamped by hand-cut wood blocks. The cabin contains Dexter family furniture, paintings, and other possessions bequeathed to the museum by Dexter’s son-in-law.

At the Western Hardware Company, many frontier and Victorian-era display items are also for sale. The 1880 building, with its gleaming hardwood fixtures, is a must-see attraction; its second floor, once office space for 19th-century professionals, overflows with antiques and an almost palpable sense of history.

Leadville’s City Hall contains a shrine honoring the “World’s Championship Pack Burro Race” over 13,188-foot Mosquito Pass between Leadville and Fairplay, along with clippings and photographs of pack burro races held each summer throughout central Colorado. Displays of locally discovered flaked stone tools made by Utes and other Native Americans are nearby, along with mineral specimens and Leadville police department memorabilia.

If all this history generates a need for spiritual reflection, the “Temple of the Living God Cosmos” sits next to City Hall. Open by appointment only and run by owner L.G. Cosmos, who holds free weekly seminars inside, this museum greets visitors with a hand-lettered sign welcoming them “to my miracle world of Resurection [sic] and Salvation of Holy Faith Museum and Holy Spirit.”

Despite its lurid past, it now appears that Leadville may be close to Heaven in more ways than mere altitude.

Lynda La Rocca is a free-lance writer who moved to Leadville at about the time that museums began to outnumber operating mines.