Thursday, September 8, 2016

Leadville, Part I: A Quiet Town With a Rich History

This summer my wife had Sabbath leave, and as part of that, she received a clergy-renewal grant that enabled us to go on a cross-country trip.  People will inevitably ask me what my favorite part was.  There were so many things we saw that it is hard to focus on just one thing: Pikes Peak, Lake Powell, Grand Canyon.  Every place had something unique.  I feel like "saw God" in many ways on our journey—mostly outside the doors of a church building.

But having said that, there was one place that stood out that you might not guess.  It's probably not on the typical vacation itinerary when one travels west.  We visited to the small town of Leadville, Colorado   It has the distinction of being the highest-elevation incorporated town in the U.S.  It also has an rich and colorful history connected to mining—and its aftermath.  We actually went there because the story of my wife's maternal ancestry has links to Leadville's mining past.  We only stayed for one night but the town seems to have made an impression on me.

Today, Leadville is a pleasant town tucked away high in the Rocky Mountains. Although less known than other ski resorts nearby, such as Vail and Aspen, it is a popular destination for running and cycling enthusiasts. In fact, there was a race of some sort the morning we were there. The starting line was right outside the hotel and many runners had stayed there the same night we did.

A trail outside Leadville near the
headframe for one of the old mines.
Like many towns out west, however, Leadville owes its existence to the mineral deposits located nearby. It began with the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in 1859 and the discovery of gold in nearby California and Iowa Gulches.  This to led the establishment of a settlement called Oro City, which peaked at about 10,000 people. Placer mining operations had always been hampered by heavy brown sand.  Miners determined the sand contained cerussite (lead carbonate) and silver.  They traced the source of the silver to the area that would eventually become Leadville.  In 1877, lead was discovered in California Gulch and the town of Leadville was established soon after.

There was a brief Silver Boom in the late 1880s and early 1890s.  During that time, Leadville's population surged, earning the nickname “Silver Queen". As Leadville grew rapidly, Oro City sharply declined; the 1890 census reported a population of 222. The Silver Boom would be short-lived, however, in large part because America switched to the Gold Standard in 1893, and silver prices dropped almost overnight.

Driving down toward Harrison Ave,
which is the main road through town.
While lead was the metal that literally put this town’s name on the map, other minerals such as zinc, copper, and even hard-to-pronounce molybdenum, have also been mined.  All these resources were used to fuel America’s "engine" of progress in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century.  There was a new boom of activity during and after World War II, when molybdenum in particular was in demand to fortify the steel used in our weapons and armaments.  At one point, Leadville's Climax mine produced 75% of the world's supply of molybdenum.  New mining tunnels were made; new waste piles created.  The miners did what they were paid to do.  The work was dirty—and dangerous.  Their children played on the piles of waste and had great fun doing so.  They had no idea then that those piles would become a source of much environmental consternation and controversy in years to come. 

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