Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

© Steve Sunday

Once home to over 40,000, today Leadville's population is below 3000.

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Where the air is rarified

The historic mining town of Leadville, officially the highest city in the US, is guaranteed to take your breath away

Fuelled by the discovery of silver and gold, in the late 1800s Leadville, Colorado was a boom town. Meyer Guggenheim built his fortune there, and legendary Western characters like Butch Cassidy and Doc Holliday arrived to stake a claim or get up to no good. Margaret Tobin got her start working at a dry goods store in Leadville, before she married a mining speculator, hopped on board the Titanic and became the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Even Oscar Wilde showed up for a speaking engagement at the Tabor Opera House, dressed, according to reports, in a purple Hungarian smoking jacket, knee breeches and black silk stockings.

The opera house still stands, but Leadville’s glory days are long gone. The silver boom was over before the century ended, and Leadville, once home to 40,000 people, now has a population of under 3000. The main industry today is tourism and recreation, based around the town’s mining history and present claim to fame: it is the highest incorporated city in the United States, sitting at 3094 metres.

Thin air and deep mines

The elevation means the air is thin, and this takes some getting used to. When I went in May, tourists were huffing and puffing while climbing the stairs of Delaware, the town’s showpiece Victorian hotel. People complained that they felt dizzy and that their mouths were dry; at a restaurant, I noticed a woman rushing from a table with a spontaneous nosebleed. In fact, it takes six weeks to fully acclimatize, though most people will be able to adjust fairly quickly with minor discomfort. One of the first things to do in Leadville is to take a walk to get your bearings. This means strolling up the main street, Harrison Avenue, for about eight blocks. Named for a smelting enterpenur, Harrison is the centre of Leadville’s National Historic Landmark district, where Victorian architecture abounds. You’ll pass the Heritage Museum, the National Mining Hall of Fame, the old drugstore and hardware store, and numerous churches. There’s also plenty of saloons; at its height, Leadville had more than 100 bars, like the Silver Dollar, built in 1883, and the Hyman Block, where Doc Holliday, sick from drink and tuberculosis, shot but did not kill his last man.

And you’ll see the Tabor structures: the Tabor Opera House (1879), the Tabor Grand (1885), formerly a hotel, and the Tabor Home (1877), now a small museum. The legacy of the Tabor family looms large in Leadville: Horace Tabor, known as the Bonanza King, made a fortune in silver mining, and then caused a national scandal by leaving his wife Augusta for Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, who was half his age. Ten years later he lost his fortune, and soon after that died. Baby Doe ended up living penniless in a cabin at Matchless Mine, where she was found dead in 1935, frozen to the floor.

Cleaner living

The last mine closed in 1999, but there are many remnants of the former industry visible along the Mineral Belt Trail (, an 18.7-kilometre path that loops around Leadville and goes up into the mining district. You can still visit the Matchless Mine, or what’s left of it, as well as Baby Doe’s cabin. Plaques point out the spots where people got rich or, less fortunately, were killed in explosions or rebellions.

The trail is paved, and the view of the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges is excellent. For nearly a century, the area was contaminated, with processing metals like lead and arsenic poisoning the groundwater and soil, including dirt that was used for yards in Leadville homes. A 28-year Environmental Protection Agency Superfund effort helped improve the situation, and two years ago Leadville was finally given a clean bill of health. Now you’ll see all types of fitness afficionados on the trail, from runners and hardcore high altitude cyclists training for the Leadville 100, to skateboarders and families on bikes.

Golfers will not want to miss the chance to play at Mount Massive (259 County Rd 5; ‎tel: 719-486-2176;; from $16), the highest golf course in North America. It’s a nine-hole course, 2938 metres high, meaning your drive will carry a good deal farther, provided it doesn’t sail off into the woods. If you’re feeling less energetic, you can hop aboard the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad (326 E 7th, tel: 719-486-3936;; adults $35, kids 4 to 12 $20) for a two-and-a-half hour train ride through the nearby San Isabel forest. A guide provides narration and the seating is open, with both open-air and covered cars.

The drive there

Part of the fun of Leadville is getting there. It’s 163 kilometres west of Denver, or an hour from Aspen if you take the scenic route over Independence Pass, open from the end of May until early October. A good driving daytrip from Leadville is a loop that will take you from Leadville to the summer mountain resort of Twin Lakes, which is the largest glacial lake in Colorado, over Independence Pass to Aspen, then to Glenwood Springs and Glenwood Canyon, alongside the Colorado River, and back to Leadville.

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Showing 6 comments

  1. On July 17, 2013, Ruthann Cook said:
    I lived at Tenneess Pass Colorado approx 9 miles from Leadville from a few months old until I was 8. I still love the town & visit whenever I can. We would have Halloween parades walking down main street receiving candy from merchants who would ultimately pick the best costumes. We would see our daddy (Wm, E. Cook-Telegrapher for D&RG Depot at Tenneessse Pass) & his softball, baseball team members & friends being thrown in the shabby wooden fake jails if they did not sport a beard all in fun of course during burrow days. There were wonderful Christmas pageants & lights everywhere during Christmas. 4th of July was of course full on big hugh -- load displays & picnics all summer long -- some of them right in our own backyard (which happened to be the Nat'l Forest). I will never forget any of these things and many more. My brother & I were so lucky to have spent much of our childhood in a wonderland throughout all 4 seasons a year! EVEN THOUGH TYPICALLY SUMMER WAS ONLY 2 MONTHS LONG AT TIMES, HA HA... This is a place every single person should visit <3
  2. On July 18, 2013, Rosaline Smith said:
    If you go to Leadville, plan to stay a few days. Get a "feel" of the town and its friendly people. Explore the history, stop by the wonderful library with a beautiful Victorian room.Many of the stores have wonderful, unusual things you'll want to take home.Love the town.
  3. On July 19, 2013, Joanne said:
    I moved to Leadville, Co in January, 1964. Worked at Climax Molybdenum Company (Mine) from 1965 - 1987. When the mine closed in 1987, I moved back to San Diego, CA. Return to Leadville every August for the Boom Days Celebration. Miss the view from my kitchen window of Mt. Elbert, highest peak in Colorado.
  4. On July 19, 2013, diane stilen said:
    my daughter lives there, and we visted two years ago. It was so beautiful there, we are going back in sept., cannt wait!! my husband tried to get a job at the newly opened mine in PB, but he got 2 calls from them, but they didnt call us back. Would love to live there..see you in september!!
  5. On July 19, 2013, Beverly Windorski said:
    I still live in Leadville, probably will never leave. I work for Top of the Rockies Ziplines and White Mountain Snowmobile Tours, 6 miles North of Leadville. White Mountain Tours has been in business for over 20 years and Top of the Rockies Ziplines has been open for almost a year. If you want to experience the great outdoors, come and take a tour with us, Call us @ 1-800-247-7238 to set-up a tour.
  6. On July 20, 2013, regina barrett said:
    I am a 4th generation of Leadville. Great Grandparents immigrated from Switzerland. Last name Gay. They are interned in the catholic cemetery there. 3 generations so far. Loved being a kid in Leadville and having the biggest yard! The mountains. My parents learned to fly a plane up there. I will forever call Leadville home.

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