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Leadville, Colorado: The Wildest Town in the West

April 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 


In an earlier post, we talked about the romantic history of the small town of Leadville, CO, but that is not all this small settlement has to offer as a vacation destination. There is also the raucous history of the town that lends interest and excitement to any visit. Leadville had sprung up largely to cater to the needs and desires of the miners who had come west to seek their fortunes. After striking it rich with his share of a silver claim, Horace Tabor, one of the town’s fathers, sold his grocery business and went on to build the finest hotel, the biggest bank and the largest theater in the West. After accomplishing these feats, he went on the purchase the Matchless Mine which paid out over $3000 a day to its lucky owner.

Leadville, Colorado street sceneOnce silver was discovered, Leadville became one of the richest and rowdiest places around. Some have called Leadville the Las Vegas of the time, but Leadville’s fortunes were greater and more incredible and its depravity more deeply entrenched. It was indeed a wild town; men outnumbered women ten to one and crime was rampant.

Because of the vast wealth amassed by the lucrative silver mining operations, Leadville was a great draw for the most ruthless and dangerous outlaws of the day. Jesse James and Doc Holliday were regulars in Leadville. James even reportedly took time off from his life of crime to mine for silver in the area. Remnants of its wicked past are apparent when walking through the town even today and history comes alive as you experience the ambiance of the establishments left behind.

Visitors may tour these mines and visit these historic locales, to get a real sense of the time and place. When your sightseeing is done, and you are seeking a bit of sustenance, downtown Leadville will not disappoint. There are numerous options from which to choose, from Callaway’s Restaurant at the Delaware Hotel to more casual dining such as DOC Holliday’s Bar and Grill to the Nordic Center and Cookhouse atop Tennessee Pass offering an elegant four course dinner accessible only via a one mile trail, groomed in winter for skiing and snowshoeing.

One local favorite is Pastimes Saloon which has been in continuous operation since 1878 and offers the casual burger with amazing views of surrounding mountains. It is the only remaining saloon on a street that at one time reportedly held 64 of the more than 100 such establishments that graced this bawdy town. Once catering to the likes of Doc Holiday, Tom Horn and Jesse James, this saloon is truly a piece of history.

Mt. Elbert, COIf the history and ambiance are not enough of a draw there is the unsurpassed scenery to enjoy. The Leadville area boasts the Rocky Mountain state’s two highest peaks: Mt. Elbert, at 14,433 feet above sea level and close by, a mere 12 feet shorter, Mt. Massive at 14,421 feet. These giants provide for some amazing vistas and spectacular hiking opportunities.

Also for the athlete, Leadville hosts one of the world’s toughest runs, The Leadville Trail 100 a 100 mile ultra marathon. Racers must complete the event in 30 hours achieving elevation gains and descents of 15,000 vertical feet as they cross 13,000 foot Hope Pass twice during the event. Many starters fail to complete the event.

The Leadville Trail 100 also offers a 100 mile mountain bike race to coincide with the ultra marathon.  Billed the “Race Across the Sky”, half of all competitors drop out before their 30 hour time limit due to the unforgiving trails, dehydration, unpredictable weather and altitudes ranging from 9,000-12,000 feet. In 2008, seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong finished second, behind defending champ Dave Wiens who has won the race six times. The “wildness” in Leadville today has more to do with the sporting events hosted by the town than by coarse or criminal behavior.

The area is also home to North America’s Highest Golf Course on nearby Mount Massive at 9,680 feet. Golfing experiences are certainly enhanced by outstanding and ever-changing views of the surrounding peaks. Ski Cooper is also close by. Recognized as one of the nation’s most successful and affordable small ski areas, Ski Cooper features excellent alpine, snowboard and telemark terrain. It originated in World War II when the U. S. Army developed Cooper Hill and nearby Camp Hale as a training site for its famed 10th Mountain Division.

Mountain sceneryAdditionally Leadville hosts a number of festivals and carnivals throughout the year to entertain visitors. Two of the largest annual events are the Winter Carnival and Boom Days. The Leadville Winter Carnival, typically held in March, celebrates winter with a bang and numerous activities such as ski joring and snowshoe racing, the sled-dog mush, broomball games and snowboard competitions.

Boom Days, held the first full weekend August each year, is a major celebration of Leadville’s mining heritage. With Main Street closed to traffic, competitors participate in strutting competitions, bedecked in floozy satin, lace garters and fishnet stockings or leather chaps and gun belts. Gunfights break out unexpectedly on street corners with showdowns taking place in the center of town. Along with competitive mining events such as “double jack drilling” and the like, a major draw is the pack burro race in which contestants run alongside their burro and attempt to lead it with a 15 foot rope. To make the event even more challenging, the course involves a vertical gain and descent of 4,000 feet.

Visiting the area to hike, we were surprised by the history and escape we found in Leadville, a place we happened upon almost accidentally. While there are many ways to spend time in the Leadville area, a large part of Leadville’s charm is the peace and tranquility that are offered by the remembrance of days gone by.  It is easy to enjoy the ambiance of a time long past; a time when gunfights did break out on street corners, the silver kings ruled the city and the pace of life moved a bit more slowly. For additional Colorado camping adventures, check out browse Woodall’s listings for Colorado camping.


One Response to “Leadville, Colorado: The Wildest Town in the West”
  1. Dianne says:

    I added a link to your blog on Colorado History Directory page on Facebook. We are a new organization working to pull together history resources throughout the state of Colorado in one central location. We work to promote history minded events to our ever growing list of members. If you are interested in becoming a part of Colorado History Directory visit our website. We are also looking for contributors for our newsletter. Let me know if this is something your may be interested in.

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