Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative travel blog where you can join me vicariously in adventures around the world. I tell my stories through both words and photographs. If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and often reaches a broader audience than in print. Unlike a formal book or essay, though, I'm mostly just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find personal posts from some of my travels. To read my more formal articles and documentaries visit one of the blue buttons above or see the Travel Essays section (the bubble below the archive bubble). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
please note all photos may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I love visiting cemeteries all over the world, and some of the most humble ones are here in the gold- and silver-rush mountains of Colorado. Lots of simple wooden markers and crosses mixed in with higher-class and better-weathered stone ones. Some of these old cemeteries are still in use with new burials yet today. The expansive Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville is one with this interesting cross-section of types and classes of markers, there are even rows and rows of nothing but divets in the earth, no markers remain at all.
Compare this to the city of mausoleums we saw at Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, where even the poorest resident lies in eternal opulence compared to these simple forest graves. But I think it's interesting how different cultures, countries, ecosystems, societies, take care of their dead. Another interesting story behind a tombstone, should you be interested, is in my Tuesday Tale about Papa Dang's Grandfather.
Reading some of the headstones in the Evergreen Cemetery prompted me to look up some of the history of Leadville that I wouldn't have otherwise known about. It was late in the day when we arrived, purely by randomness, just driving back from exploring around some lakes. I had actually read about it and wanted to try to find it, but as so often happens to us traveling, we happened across it without looking. But because of the hour we didn't spend a whole lot of time there, I could certainly spend more if we find ourselves back in that area.
The graves are scattered through the pine trees. Something about this grave touched me in particular. It's spooky, it's lonely, and yet somehow victorious, still attesting to someone's life so many years later even though that person's name is long worn away.
I am drawn most to the old wooden markers. You can still make out the last name on this one, not sure about the first. I wonder about the trees inside the box ... I presume they grew after the grave was dug. Probably a fresh mound of soft dirt made for a good sprouting spot for a couple pinecones. Somehow it makes me happy for this person that he/she has some living company inside the representation of their death.
Noticing gravestones and markers led me to investigate some history once I got home to learn more about who and what was referred to, such as the monument below referring to the Homestake Mine:
Sourced from the Colorado Central Magazine website: In February 1885 ten miners at the Homestake Mine 15 miles northwest of Leadville were killed when their cabin was engulfed by a huge snowslide. Their remains went undiscovered until late April, when two locals, curious as to why the miners hadn't been seen since mid-January, hiked to the site and found the cabin, outbuildings, and mine entrance covered by snow.
A 1948 Rocky Mountain Empire Magazine article states that a letter was discovered in the cabin rubble, written by victim Horace W. Mathews on Feb. 21, 1885. "Snow, snow, snow! Will it ever stop?" Mathews wrote with haunting irony. He went on to describe mining as "certainly a dangerous and uncertain business, but there is something about it which draws a man on, ever hoping to become rich suddenly." The letter's date, along with Mathews' alarm clock, which had stopped at 12:25, indicated that the slide probably occurred around February 22.
The Leadville community raised funds for an elaborate funeral service, businesses closed to honor the dead, mines closed to allow workers to attend the rites, and in September 1886, this memorial was raised in Evergreen Cemetery.
And after spying the gravestone below, I wondered what happened at the Wolftone Mine.
What happened was two miners, one being J.H. Berryman, were taking out old timbers in the mine, hauling them up in the cage that descends into the shaft to carry miners down and up. It was theorized that the timbers the men were bringing up must have slipped and caught in the cribbing. The engineer operating the cage felt the jar and stopped hoisting. He waited for a bell signal from the two men, but got none. So a bucket was lowered with a man in to check on the miners. Sadly there were but two mangled bodies underneath a pile of timbers.
An inquest was held to determine if the Wolftone Mine was at fault in deaths. Although it was ruled merely an unfortunate accident, the Wolftone bore funeral expenses for both men.
Now this tombstone below got me super curious, "One of the first settlers in Colorado in 1858." As you may have read in one of my other articles on Colorado's mining history (such as THIS one), 1858 was the year of the first big gold rush in region. Colorado was not actually a state yet, that came in 1861. Where did he come here from and what did he do ... pan or mine gold, or come on the heels of miners to provide services in mining towns?
There's a copy of the 1860 census for the area that is now Lake County, where Leadville is located, reproduced by the Leadville Historical Society online. While there is actually a William Campbell listed in it, his listed age is way off. However, this reproduction is prefaced by the historical society as, "This project is dedicated to all of the census-takers who originally compiled the Lake County censuses. Their trials and tribulations were equaled only by their errors and omissions!" I find this humorous. So who knows if it's the same guy.
There wasn't even a cemetery at the location of this gravestone in 1863, the listed date of death. The Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1879 and the graves from the original city cemetery were moved here. Though, one imagines they probably didn't get every body, especially any unmarked graves.
I saw several similar gravestones that all had "erected by the Woodmen of the World" engraved at the bottom of them. I thought maybe this was an organization like the Freemasons or something. I looked it up ... all these tombstones came as part of a life insurance policy offered from 1890 to 1900 by a fraternal benefit society, Woodmen of the World. All things considered, they're pretty nice tombstones to get with what was touted as "affordable" life insurance if you don't mind sharing your epitaph with the name of your insurer. The monuments were ready-made, so when a member in good standing died, the local monument installer had simply to carve the deceased’s info onto the blank space.
In all the mining town cemeteries there is a significant presence of Freemasons, always with their own section within a cemetery. The symbol at the top of this tombstone is the symbol of Freemasons. I like that his birth town is listed, that's one bit of curiosity satisfied (yet only a tiny bit).
A couple other graves I found picturesque ... the first one because of the spots of lichen.
And of course there are the babies — always noticeable in these old miner's cemeteries because the cemeteries are often relatively small and the baby markers relatively numerous, the ratio of adult to baby graves stands out.
For all these graves with headstones, even for some of the shortest lives, there are yet an estimated 1,300 unmarked graves of Irish immigrants in the Evergreen Cemetery. You can see below what this section of the cemetery generally looks like — rows and rows of sunken rectangles as the only evidence of the bodies laid below. It's rather creepy, actually, this anonymous field of bones. The pine caskets and small wooden markers long ago rotted and decomposed.
A memorial to these Irish immigrants is currently under planning and fundraising. As planned, a spiral pathway will lead to the top of a mound where a sculpture will sit, reminiscent of ancient Irish burial mounds. The names of each person in the plots will be carved into glass walls or onto plaques. Their names and ages can be obtained thanks to Catholic Church records.
The Go Fund Me page for this memorial makes some poignant statements about these individuals:
"They made their way across North America during the late 1870s and early 1880s, to one of the greatest silver rushes in North American history [knowing there would be jobs for them]. There, they found themselves segregated to Leadville’ East Side, working the mines and smelters at ten thousand feet above sea level. Their wages were three dollars a day, their shifts ten hours. These were desperate, transient, uneducated, unskilled, and mostly young people. The poorest of these immigrants, without any resources or family, were buried in the 'Catholic Free' section of the cemetery, with a crude wooden slab to mark their burial. The average age of death of those buried there is twenty two. Half of them are children twelve years old or younger. These were the children of the famine generation, those orphaned, exiled, and cast adrift in North America. ... By naming them, we are centering the intense trauma and suffering that this generation of Irish immigrants brought to North America."
As I mentioned, we only had time to explore a portion of the cemetery. You can see from this map at the entrance how extensive it is. We hope to find ourselves back in the area in the future and will spend more time here.
please note photos may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
Another summer in COVID. Which actually is little bother to us since there is so much to see here in our own state that we can drive to, and we tend to stay in self-catering units anyway. We're not quite ready to brave the international travel scene again, so the main trip I had planned for us was a trip to Leadville, another mining town about a two-hour drive away. You can read about all the wildflowers we found HERE!
We traveled there with our 4Runner hoping to explore 4x4 roads and find mining ruins like we found around Fairplay and Breckenridge and as we do around our own neck of the woods. Find these we did, several of which were on a scale to dwarf any ruins around our home turf, such as the New Monarch ore bin, one of the best preserved in the Leadville mining district.
Whenever I go to write a post on Colorado, I get sucked down a nerdy rabbit hole into reading lots of history, some of which I have shared. I'm going to share more now, I can't help myself. So dear readers if you're interested, I'll tell you a bit about Leadville, the most dramatic boom-bust town and arguably the most important in Colorado's mining history. The upshot of a lot of the research is realizing I need to go back and see a lot that I didn't before. It's also the upshot of being there during COVID, as a lot of the museums in town weren't open. It's the heritage of my state — I'm drawn to it. If you just want to see the photos, scroll on down a ways.
In spite of the name "Leadville," silver mining is what made the kings around here, though lead production was second only to silver. At 10,150 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in North America, with a backdrop of some of the highest peaks in Colorado, over 14,000 feet. Below, Erik and I overlook the town from Venir Shaft ... you can just pick out the little dots making up Leadville in the valley. The very tallest peaks are actually out of the frame to the left.
The first load of placer gold (taken from the surface such as with sluice boxes or panning, as opposed to hard rock mining) near present-day Leadville was discovered in California Gulch in April 1860. By the end of that summer thousands of people had ascended into the gulch in search of sparkling fortune, a veritable swarm of optimistic humanity.
But the boom was short-lived — by 1865 placer miners were already leaving in droves as the deposits were becoming depleted.
As yields of gold were plunging, the Civil War at this time was eliciting more demand for gold or shares in gold mining companies, which it turned out had little in proven reserves. Then the Indian War broke out on the Great Plains in 1864 disrupting transportation of the gold to the eastern states through 1865. Stamp mills were failing. Numerous factors conspired to bust the gold rush by about 1866.
By 1868 mines and mills had closed, miners lost their jobs, towns dried up, and people left both the mining region and Colorado itself. So from the time of the discovery of gold in the region in 1858, which led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861, Colorado’s first mineral boom had gone bust in roughly ten years.
During those heady golden years in California Gulch, the miners began to find what they called “black cement,” “black sand,” or “the damned blue stuff.” All they understood at first was that the mysterious substance clogged sluices and frustrated placer mining. About the time Colorado became a state in the union, 1876, two experienced miners from the South Park area decided to rework the old placers in California Gulch. They used hydraulic mining to recover gold, but as they did so, they noticed the dark rock that had frustrated the placer miners. They decided to take samples over to an assayer in Alma, who determined that the mineral was a rich silver-lead ore with substantial amounts of iron.
Well these two, rather than brashly announcing their find, quietly went to work. First they began to acquire claims high on Iron Hill near the gulch, which they discovered as the source of the rocks they had assayed. Then they searched for a place to sell the ore they might produce, and came into contact with an ore buyer from St. Louis. He came to Iron Hill and was so impressed by the content of the ore that he immediately obtained wagon teams to carry the product over the mountains to railheads from which it was shipped up to St. Louis for smelting. Although still turning a profit, they all recognized that transportation was very expensive.
And so, as the drum roll begins, heralding the next boom, in 1877 the company buying the ore decided to erect a branch smelter north of California Gulch, known as the Harrison Works (the main thoroughfare of Leadville now is Harrison Avenue), to provide a local ore market. It was getting difficult to keep the silver secret now as ore emerged from the Iron Hill mines and the Harrison Works smelted it to bullion.
Suddenly the news of silver in them thar hills spread like a wildfire and by mid-1877, hundreds and then thousands of miners were once again making their way to California Gulch. They overwhelmed the existing community of Oro City located in the steep-walled gulch; a new community arose around the Harrison Works which would become Leadville. It went by several other names until 1878 when the town petitioned for its first post office. Horace Tabor became the post master and gave the town its name after the lead ore found in the area. You, my readers, met Horace back in my post about Buckskin Joe when he was married to Augusta. But it was here in Leadville where he made his fame with his second wife, Baby Doe. But we'll get to that story in a bit.
Almost overnight, Leadville blossomed into the second or third largest city in Colorado. Its ore production dwarfed everything that Colorado had produced in the previous two decades combined, and by the early 1880s was the largest silver and lead producing center in the United States. There was even talk of moving the state capitol to Leadville.
As the silver industry boomed spectacularly, men who would become some of the wealthiest in the country arrived and made their fortunes here, such as Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who invested in his first Leadville mine in 1880, and I think we all know how well that went for him, founding one of the most illustrious family names in America. Horace Tabor, a well-known name in Colorado, made a fortune on the Matchless Mine, though he did not invest so wisely as the Guggenheims.
And so hooray hooray everything is peachy keen in Leadville, people are getting rich, but slowly, for several reasons, silver prices started slipping by a couple cents a year in the late 1880s, though hardly anyone noticed as the fortune factory continued. Then in 1893 two things happened, but only one of them is typically talked about in articles on the silver bust. I had only heard of the one even after previously researching some on Colorado mining. That one is the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which devalued silver in the U.S. that had previously been propped up by the government. I was therefore very interested to read the following in the article, The Mining Industry in Colorado.
"Then on June 26, 1893, came disaster. On that day, the British Parliament accepted the report of the Herschell Committee, which recommended that Her Majesty’s Mints in India cease the coinage of silver rupees. Overnight, the price of silver plunged from 80 cents to 64 cents an ounce, then continued sinking to 60 cents an ounce. Almost instantly, the American silver industry began shutting down. Mines closed, mills closed, and smelters closed. Railroads curtailed service, banks failed, and real estate investors sold their holdings at heavy losses. Thousands of people lost their jobs. In mining, unemployment soared in all the silver regions, reaching 40% to 50% in the larger communities, and nearly 100% in places supported by only one or two mines.
By July, virtually the entire silver industry had come to a halt. The Silver Crash of 1893 was a catastrophe in the West, and especially in Colorado, where silver production formed the backbone of the minerals industry and the state economy. Later in the year, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 put even greater pressure on the industry. Some historians believe that in Colorado the ravages of the Crash created an economic crisis equal to or worse than the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The psychological impact of the collapse was also so great that innumerable historians have written–incorrectly–that it destroyed the silver industry in Colorado and the West. As 1894 began, the price of silver finally stabilized at about 60 cents per ounce, and the silver industry gradually came back to life. The mines, mills, and smelters reopened; so, too, did many ancillary businesses. But there were significant changes that were quickly evident. The most obvious change was in wages. The price of silver was now lower than it had been six months before, and as the industry rehired workers, the wages offered workers were lower as well. So, in effect, hardrock miners, mill workers, and smelter men bore the brunt of the silver collapse. That, of course, had important consequences. The 1890s witnessed a dramatic increase in unionization and the beginning of a virulent labor-management war that would last for at least a quarter century."
Up to this point, most of the information I've imparted has come from the extensive article sponsored by the National Register of Historic Places titled, "The Mining Industry in Colorado." I've excerpted some direct quotes into my post, but it's messy to denote them (save the one above) amidst a lot of paraphrased and other-sourced material, and it's not like this is a school research paper, haha. So just know, that is my primary source for the above history. Another prominent source for this whole post is Leadville.com.
But now let's go back to the story of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, who were dramatically affected by the silver crash. Potentially the most famous mine in Colorado is the Matchless Mine because of the legendary drama of the personal lives involved. Baby Doe Tabor is known by most Coloradoans, I think, and her association with the Matchless, but perhaps not beyond our state, although there have been two operas written about her. I saw one of them performed at the Central City opera house, which is actually the town in which she lived with her first husband. So for those who don't know, I will summarize this story:
After moving to Leadville with his wife Augusta and working as the postmaster, Horace Tabor was already mayor of the town by 1879 and making a fine enough penny as a merchant and mine investor. The Matchless claim was bought in 1878 by other folks who did not see a big return on it. Tabor bought into it in 1879 and spent a heck of a lot of money to gain exclusive title before it had even produced anything substantial because it lay along the east-west trend of the ore discovered in several nearby "bonanza" mines and I guess you could say he had a suspicion it would pay off.
Sure enough, a shaft dug near a corner of the claim in 1880 hit a rich vein of silver. By January 1883, the mine had produced what in today's dollars is about $485 million in silver ore. The was quite a meteoric rise in fortune.
Meanwhile, over in Wisconsin, a beautiful Elizabeth McCourt had married one Harvey Doe, Jr., and they moved to Central City, Colorado, to work the Fourth of July mine (near where I live) which his father owned an interest in. But Harvey was barely able to make a living much less a profit, and he stuffed his new wife into miner's clothes and made her personally work a shaft in the mine. (!) The rough men of Central City, save for her own husband, expressed their affection and appreciation of her beauty and gritty spirit by giving her the nickname Baby Doe — the miner's sweetheart. It stuck.
In 1880 Baby Doe attracted the attention of the newly wealthy Horace Tabor, who had become at odds with his wife Augusta over how to live with their new wealth in Leadville. Augusta was a spendthrift while Horace wished to live lavishly. Baby Doe left her husband and Central City behind to pursue a liaison with Horace. Their affair soon became public knowledge, and of course rather scandalous, so in 1882 after divorcing their spouses, they got married.
The newly married couple flaunted their spectacular fortune by spending recklessly and throwing lavish parties at the mansion they built in Denver. They were one of the five richest families in the country.
Their fairytale ended in 1893 with the silver crash. Because of his irresponsible spending and unwise investments, Horace couldn't ride out the crash, he lost his fortune, eventually resorting to menial jobs to keep his wife and two daughters fed. He passed away in 1899 and legend has it that his last words to Baby Doe were, "Hold onto the Matchless. It will make millions again."
And so Baby Doe did just that. After Horace's death the mine was sold to settle the mining company's debts, but Baby Doe's sister actually bought back the mine a year later and granted Baby Doe the legal power to conduct all the business regarding the Matchless. The ore produced by its lessees declined in quality and quantity and eventually the mine was foreclosed on. By this time Baby Doe had moved into the little superintendent's cabin and was essentially destitute. Shorego Mining Company, owned by a wealthy Denverite, bought the mine to allow the now elderly Baby Doe to stay in her cabin and she was apparently being supported by benefactors including former fellow Leadville citizen, the famous Molly Brown, although Baby Doe was not cognizant of these generosities. In her mind, which became increasingly prey to dementia, she was a proud woman who did not accept charity.
In the winter of 1935, Baby Doe was found frozen in her little cabin. It appeared she had died of a heart attack some days earlier, alone and destitute yet holding onto the Matchless. Even though she was renowned for her stunning beauty, in the end it was her grit and pluck, as once demonstrated in her first marriage, that proved to be her defining feature.
Shorego eventually donated the mine to the city of Leadville for its historic value as the story of Baby Doe had become well-known by mid-century.
If you visit Leadville, you can tour the mine and Baby Doe's cabin, the house in which Horace and Augusta lived, and the Tabor opera house in downtown Leadville.
Below is an old photo of the Matchless ruins, I don't know the year, in the National Mining Museum.
It just so happened that one of the nights we were in Leadville, the historical society was having a free drive-in movie at the mine. They had a big blow-up screen and a sound system, concessions and free (and delicious) popcorn. Unfortunately it was so cold sitting in our camping chairs at 10,200 feet above sea level on a cloudless night, that once I finished my first bag, in spite of being offered another, I just sat still in my blanket cocoon, afraid that any movement would let in a chill. The movie was Into The Spider-Verse, which was such a funny juxtaposition of modern entertainment at this old historic site.
I took a picture of one of the buildings beneath the moon.
So the silver boom lasted 16 years and created some fabulous and lasting wealth for certain investors. And then .....
One J.J. Brown had been steadily working as a miner in Leadville in the 1880s, progressing from miner to superintendent. In 1886 he married a woman named Molly and for a time they moved up the hill a few miles to live in Stumpftown (more popularly called Stumptown). Today there are but a few remaining structures, the largest and most intact below. Reflected along with the building are the orange-colored tailings dump of a mine behind.
For some context of the grand landscape in which these high altitude miners lived ... can you find the cabin above in the photo below?
In 1892 J.J. was brought in as a partner in the Ibex Mining Company which owned the Little Johnny Mine. That year the company discovered gold in the mine, but like their savvy predecessors who discovered the silver, they kept this bit of information to themselves until they could buy the claims surrounding the Little Johnny, as they had determined that the gold vein traveled sideways under neighboring claims.
So when silver crashed in 1893 sending many mining companies spiraling downward, the Ibex Company was poised to start the next gold boom. When they announced the find in 1893, the grade of gold was shown to be so pure and the vein so wide, it was called one of the world's richest gold strikes to that date. It revived the mining town’s economy and in fact aided the entire state's financial recovery. By November of 1893, the Little Johnny was shipping 135 tons of gold ore per day. Move over silver barons, the Ibex Company's in town!
Nothing remains on the surface of the Little Johnny mine, but several other structures from the Ibex Company's holdings remain. The largest is the Ibex ore house, below. It's kind of hard to get a sense of scale, but it's very large, taller than the New Monarch pictured above. I read that it's the largest preserved historical mining structure in the Leadville district. I don't think there is any active upkeep, it's just well built! It sits amid mounds of mine tailings. In elevation, this is about 1,400 feet above the town of Leadville, nearing tree line.
A stone's throw away (if you have a really strong arm) from the ore house stands the headframe of the Irene Shaft, referred to as Irene #2. This is a later shaft sunk in the 1950s to an impressive depth of 1,750 feet. So its bottom is several hundred feet lower than Leadville. I'm not sure exactly when it stopped operation, but potentially not until the 1990s.
J.J. Brown's name might have been more famous considering his extraordinary wealth, but he was eventually eclipsed by his wife, the well-known survivor of the Titanic who was dubbed the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" for her courage in helping other survivors evacuate the ship, later establishing the Survivor’s Committee. Molly used the spotlight from her Titanic fame to promote women’s rights and she become the first woman to run for congress in 1914. Although incredibly wealthy and living in virtual opulence for the day (the house she lived in in Denver can be toured), Molly's standard and values always lay in service to others. She founded or participated in several philanthropic projects, volunteered during WWI, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1932. J.J. was also very generous with his money, in marked contrast to Horace Tabor and Baby Doe. Despite their shared values, J.J. and Molly eventually separated but remained friendly.
Okay, well I imagine you've had about enough Leadville history and biographies. Let's put in a few more photos! We've moved away now from the Ibex complex; below are abandoned and collapsing structures at the Venir Shaft.
It's a great location for an overview of the valley where Leadville lies and the mountain ranges behind. I read that Leadville was at one time referred to (at least by some) as Cloud City. It looks like we are so high up that the ceiling of clouds is just above our heads, as if we could maybe reach it with a tallish ladder. Erik looks like he's about to walk right on off the edge of the plateau.
But in fact he just sat down and we had lunch.
It was strangely difficult to identify a lot of the ruins we ran across from the internet (because we typically wander aimlessly and explore first, then learn about what we found later) — a problem I did not have with the things we ran across in the South Park and Breckenridge areas. To the best of my reckoning, the pics below are from the Tucson Mine in the Iron Hill area where the silver was first discovered. If you're reading this and you know differently, let me know! I have my idea because they look very like a photo labeled the Tucson Mine from the Mining History Association. You can see from the first pic how precarious so many of these abandoned structures are, soon to be only piles of planks.
Below is a headframe we ran across; couldn't tell you at all where we were at, haha. Just wandering. You can see Chewie over on the left for scale.
A tailings dump rises up like a mountain on the moon. No other structures around it, just a big hill.
Lastly, below are a couple historic photos of Leadville from the National Mining Museum, which I very highly recommend taking a visit to if you are in the area. Admission is very reasonable at $12 and it's chock full of interesting history and artifacts, and tons of really cool rocks if you're impressed with our planet's geological wonders. The photo with the burros I actually bought the print for a whopping $3 there. Burros were such an important part of Rocky Mountain mining life, I think they generally are not given their due credit for how invaluable they were as pack animals. They are standing in what was and still is the main street of Leadville (Harrison Ave.).
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
This summer, 2021, in mid-July Erik and I took our 4Runner, Chewie, on a trip to Leadville, Colorado, to explore some of the 4x4 roads around there, expecting to find a lot of old mining ruins. I'll tell you about its mining history in the next post. Leadville is only a couple hours driving time from our home, so not exactly an epic road trip. But this is what I love about where we live — there is just so much to explore and we don't even have to go very far. We stayed in an Airbnb about a 10 minute walk away from the main drag in town, which was perfect for evenings out.
We did find remains still standing of the 19th and 20th century mines, but I decided to make a separate post dedicated to the wildflowers we saw, as the profusion was unexpected and turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
In our home area it had been a fantastic wildflower season so far when we left for Leadville which is about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. The higher the elevation, the later the flowers are to bloom, so we happened to time our trip precisely at the peak. I just can't gush enough over how spectacular the flowers were.
Plus what was remarkable to me was how we saw flowers of every stage of summer all open at the same time. For example, in our 'hood, the shooting stars and columbines are early summer flowers and typically will be done blooming before the elephant heads open, but in Leadville we saw all of those blooming at the same time. Summers are very short at 10,000-12,000 feet above sea level, where we were seeing all these flowers, so I guess they don't have time to muck about and wait to open in a nice orderly fashion; it's just a free-for-all: "Everybody bloom!"
We came into Leadville in a very roundabout way from outside of Fairplay because I wanted to check out Weston Pass, one of several throughways between Leadville and the South Park area. It was mostly just a dirt road — you would want a high-clearance vehicle, but there was nothing technical about it. And, as (knock on wood) seems to be our typical luck driving off-road in Colorado, we encountered nearly no-one.
I've often said that it feels like the Front Range, where Erik and I live, was made for the world — everyone comes up to our mountain area from the Boulder/Denver area — and the rest of Colorado was made just for the two of us and Chewie.
The most famous pass connecting Leadville to Fairplay is Mosquito Pass. Last year we started up it from the Fairplay side, so this year we drove up to the start of it on the Leadville side. Our intent was not to take the pass over but take a route that spurred off of it, Birdseye Gulch, which connects to Highway 91 across the Arkansas River. What we had absolutely no idea about was the extensive wildflower fields we would come across.
Fortunately it was later in the afternoon when we pulled into this area, and so a perfect place to enjoy a couple happy hour beers among the flowers. Gobs of yellow flowers that I think are arrowleaf balsamroot, but if you know differently, let me know!, and red paintbrush, blue columbine, white and purple penstemon, blue harebells, pink buckwheat, and loads of other flowers whose ID I don't know.
As I was lying down in the field with my camera, Erik said, "Your dad would have loved to take a picture of you," which is true — my dad was fond of taking pictures of me as a kid in flower fields when we were backpacking. So Erik grabbed my other camera and snapped a couple photos of me in a very happy place — happy physically, mentally and spiritually.
But the crowning wildflower experience, pretty much of all time, not just of this trip, was discovering what we dubbed "columbine heaven." We use COTREX to explore 4x4 routes around Colorado, a GPS program that you can use to pre-download maps onto your phone or other device and it has a pretty good database of off-road trails. Sadly, we've discovered that a lot of county roads shown on COTREX have been closed (gated off) by entitled individuals claiming the public roads as private property, which is really super uncool.
In this case, though, rather than the frustration of finding a mapped trail to be closed, we found ourselves driving down a trail that was not in the COTREX database. We figured we'd keep following it as long as it stayed pretty easy. As we came down a hill at tree line, I noticed a sea of blue off to the right. At first I thought I saw a columbine, but then I thought, "There's no way those are all columbines," for I've never seen such a vast open field of them before.
But, my friends, that was indeed the way. Gobs, gobs and more gobs of blue columbine, Colorado's state flower. We calculated that there must have been as many as 2,000 blooms fully open in this sea. I couldn't get a photo to properly illustrate the profusion. But here is me, taken by Erik, and some close-ups of some of the flower bundles.
The typical bunch had around 20 blooms, almost more of a columbine "shrub" than a "flower," and we estimated at the least 100 bunches just on the open hillside to the right of the truck. There were some more on the other side of the road, too.
It was so magical, and we were the only people there, I half expect that after we left, the field just dissolved into the sunshine, as if we had parted the curtains into a mystical realm that vanished behind our backs, and that we could never find it again. Probably all the locals know about it, but once again it seemed as if the world there had been created just for me, Erik and Chewie.
If you happen to follow me on Facebook, you will likely know that I love elephant heads, they are perhaps my favorite flower of all, and we saw plenty of those in bloom around the area at the higher passes.
At this little brook both elephant heads and columbines were in bloom, but the columbines were single blooms in miniature compared to Columbine Heaven. Still, to see two of my favorite flowers next to the same brook is exciting to me, I suppose I am easily amused. We didn't continue up the "road," but this made a nice happy hour spot one day.
I read a lot of articles and posts of people raving about the flowers at Hagerman Pass, so we checked that out. We did not take the hiking trails, which apparently are spectacular, but even the drive over was lovely, crossing the Continental Divide at 11,925 feet above sea level. Still snow in mid-July.
Well since this post is about nature, here are a couple lakes along our meandering routes.
One morning we took the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad (LC&S) ride — a 2.5-hour slow ride along a historic track built, of course, for the booming mining industry in the late 19th century. Originally a narrow-gauge track, like many railroads tying their fortunes to the brief abundance of mining towns across the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century, its heyday was relatively short. It was converted to a standard gauge in the 1940s. The engine that now pulls the tourist carriages is a diesel engine.
The train's website and other sites advertising it make it sound like it is heart-pumping excitement ("adventure! adventure!"). I'm sorry, but if you're over about 10 years old, I have to say that "adventurous" is a little overstatement. (Although as we were sitting in our seats still parked at the depot waiting for the train to depart, the couple near me asked their toddler, "Who's ready for an exciting train ride?" I shot my hand up and said, "I am!") A lot of the mountain range views that generally are to be had were obscured to us by the heavy smoke of massive wildfires scorching the western area of the country.
Here the train is crossing over a 4x4 road that we had driven in Chewie just the day before.
It's a very fine, slow-paced scenic route on which it is easy for your imagination to jump back in time and put you onboard ... especially for me after having been to the South Park City Museum inside the period depot and inside the caboose of its train. The LC&S chugs for eleven miles up to a water tank before turning back, though the tracks continue another three miles toward the Climax Mine.
You can bring your own food on board, so you can have yourself a little train car picnic and top it off with an overpriced ice cream bar from the "dining" car. Yum.
So another summer during COVID passes feeling grateful for having so much to see right here in my own state. Stay tuned for more from Leadville.
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click mouse)
A few more words from our 4x4 driving trip based in Breckenridge, Colorado, with a little more Colorado history and photos. To me, the history is so much more accessible when you can still see the evidence of it in the remaining ruins which will dwindle with each passing year.
Before the gold rush in the Colorado mountains, about the only people who had reason to be living there besides Native Americans were fur trappers. Individuals and wagon trains might pass through the area on their way further west. In 1806 in what would eventually become Park County, a trapper told the famous explorer Zebulon Pike, who was mapping the western lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson, that he'd found gold in the South Park basin. At that time neither man was interested in gold -- which seems almost incredulous given the crazy gold fever that possessed so many thousands of people half a century later. But the trapper was only concerned with beavers (which were quite lucrative at that time) and Pike was focused on completing his report.
When a prospector found nuggets of gold in 1859 near what would soon become the city of Denver, the discovery triggered a stampede of gold-seekers and families looking for fortune in the Rockies. Within a year and a half, the population of the area known as Colorado jumped from a few thousand Native Americans and a few hundred mountain men to more than 30,000 people scouring the mountains for their personal pot of gold.
It was this 1859 gold rush that inspired the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 -- a space (the same as the current state boundary) drawn around the intersection of the Kansas, Nebraska and Utah Territories, extending down into the New Mexico Territory. So my state took chunks out of those four territories to make its own.
About a third of those first rushers came to Park County where miners found millions of dollars of gold. Check out my post on South Park City to see what it was like living in these early mining towns.
Wise Mountain is within the network of 4x4 roads that connect between Breckenridge and Montezuma near Keystone. The cabin on Wise Mountain was built in 1878 and used by the Wise Mountain Silver Mining Claim. The mine shaft was an impressive 1,200 feet from base to summit. The cabin sat above a mining town, Swandyke, which like so many, has all but disappeared.
Anyone working up there above tree line had sweeping views of the surrounding area. It's an "I'm on the top of the world" feeling. Let's see if you have that Carpenters song stuck in your head now for the rest of the day. Even though there is little flora besides low tundra ground cover and few fauna beyond some cute rodents, I think the colors of the mountain rock make a pretty picture.
North of Breckenridge on Hwy 9, Tiger Road (CR6) leads into Georgia Pass. Erik had seen a point on one of our trails apps that said "Masonic Monument." We decided this sounded of interest and used COTREX to arrive at the spot. We looked around and around and found a small stone commemorative marker that was the "monument." It hardly seemed like something worthy of pointing out on a map considering how many larger and interesting unmarked sights are found in these mountains.
Curious, I researched after we got back to our condo. And what I found was very surprising. I didn't take a photo of it because I didn't realize at the time its significance. So as a previous paragraph ended with the observation that so many mining towns have disappeared, here is one of the most remarkable examples.
The stone "monument" does in fact mark where the first Masonic Temple on Colorado's western slope was built. It's all that remains, apparently along with a cemetery, which we did not spy (but now I want to go back and find it), of what was once the largest town in Summit County (which at that time stretched west all the way to the Utah border) and was nearly voted the capitol of the Colorado Territory in 1861: Parkville.
Parkville was founded in 1859 when placer gold deposits were discovered. This means miners panned the gold from rivers rather than digging mine shafts into the rock. Only two years later, Parkville had 1,800 residents, and miner's cabins filled the area. These miners were among the luckiest in Colorado's mining history. I read they could pan up to $10,000 in gold dust in a single summer. $10,000 in 1860 was an enormous amount of money -- a typical day's wage for average people was maybe $2 at best. It makes me wonder what those miners did with all that money. Did they blow it all in the saloons, did they retire in little mansions, did they invest and start wealthy family legacies?
Parkville was a rockin' town with a brewery and three theaters. It even had a private mint so people could do business easier than with bags of gold dust. I'm curious how large a bag filled with $10,000 of gold dust would be! They minted $5 and $10 denominations, I'm also curious how big of a pouch of gold dust you would plop down to get a $10 coin.
So what happened to the town? It basically destroyed itself, destabilizing the mountainsides by deforesting them and then using high pressure hoses to wash down gravel so it could be sifted through to extract the gold. Rock slides eventually buried the town.
So we passed by the buried town of Parkville and didn't even know it. But we had a lovely drive on the Georgia Pass road, passing Mt. Guyot whose summit is just shy of 13,400 feet.
We took a delightful lunch break with little pikas calling from the rocks around us.
Near the end of the day we found ourselves descending SOB Hill (really more of a pitch at the bottom of a longer, less challenging 4x4 trail). We didn't intend to go down this trail as I'd seen the rating of it and while Erik would surely be competent at it, we also were on vacation, not on our home turf, so we didn't want to risk injuring our 4Runner, Chewie, and not being able to drive home. However, we inadvertently ended up on it because I managed to screw up my phone that afternoon (big surprise -- I'm incompetent with it) and I couldn't log in to the COTREX maps we'd been using, so we were winging it.
We came to that pitch and it looked gnarly, but we saw another trail to the left and thought it was either a "chicken route" or the actual trail. So we followed it instead. It was easier but not easy. And after awhile it ended abruptly with a fallen tree across the trail. Absolutely no way around it and not enough room to turn around, so we had to back up the trail to the fork, which was even less easy. In the process, Chewie got injured but not so that we couldn't keep driving; we had to replace the rear hatch door after we got home, though. We realized then the gnarly section was in fact the trail and we had no option but to go down it.
It required some spotting, and so walking down the trail to scout the route, I managed to slip and fall and bruise my butt up nice and pretty. So Chewie and I were injured, so there were a couple moments of "SOB!" cursing. Otherwise everything went fine, but this cabin back on flat ground was a welcome sight (the flat ground more so than the cabin). And the outhouse. I often think old miners' outhouses are quaint.
We stopped to take a picture of this pretty hillside with autumn aspens and colorful tailings on the way up Tiger Road.
South of Breckenridge on Hwy 9 toward Alma, is the picturesque Magnolia Mill just above Montgomery Reservoir. What used to be the mining town of Montgomery, established in 1861, now lies underneath the waters of the reservoir which supplies Colorado Springs, quite a ways southeast, with water. The town had a large dance hall and I read it sent President Lincoln a bar of gold from the Montgomery Mine. I guess the postal service was very honest not to nick a bar of gold, haha. I wonder how it arrived ... wrapped up in a box with a bow? "Happy birthday" "Top Secret: For Your Eyes Only" "To Whom It May Concern" ... I wonder how Lincoln reacted ... "ho hum, a bar of gold," or "woo-hoo a bar of gold!"
You can see that a bit of sheet metal has peeled back from a section of the walkway in the pic above. The breeze was gently knocking it against the structure making an eerie ghostly sound that gave the place a nice abandoned atmosphere. I saw it referred to as an ore walkway, ore probably traveled between the two buildings on a conveyor belt.
The original mill burned down -- a common fate of buildings in mining towns. It was rebuilt in 1930, which is what still stands now. Some of the large machinery is still inside in good shape (photo taken through a window).
In the evenings we relaxed under a full moon in one of our condo's hot tubs. As this was during COVID, pool and tub activity was limited and controlled, so we had a hot tub all to ourselves, which was delightful. Staying in a condo, cooking our own meals and driving ourselves around in our own vehicle was a perfect vacation during this strange time of pandemic.
Read more articles about Colorado
Read more articles about this area Breckenridge - South Park - Montezuma