By Michael Conlin
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Colorado Preservationist magazine and is reprinted by permission.
A Brief History of Leadville
In April of 1860, a small band of wizened prospectors, veterans of the 1849 California Gold Rush, stooped patiently over the bone chilling cold waters of a small tributary stream not far from the current day Hayden Ranch. Patiently they searched the swirling waters of their gold pans for the “color” that would surely bring them fortune.
The tedium was broken when one of the prospectors, Abe Lee, rose stiffly from the bed of the creek and exclaimed, “Boys, I just found all of California in this here pan!” With those words, the rush was on, and the legacy of one of Colorado’s richest and bawdiest mining camps was born.
Word of the rich strike spread like wildfire, and soon the sounds of picks and shovels striking the hard Rocky Mountain earth rang from every tributary in the basin. By July of 1860, over 8,000 miners and prospectors fanned out over the length and breadth of the Upper Arkansas River Valley, spilling over the mountain passes into the valleys of the Eagle, Gunnison, and Roaring Fork Rivers in search of precious metals.
Beginning as a crude assortment of mud-roofed cabins and tents, a community aptly named Oro City, Spanish for gold, sprang up seemingly overnight. Millions of dollars in placer gold were extracted from the glacial alluvium of gulches with names like California, Nugget and Stray Horse, but the color soon panned out, and many miners moved on to the next strike.