One hundred sixty-one years ago this month, a prospecting party worked its way north along the Arkansas River, testing gulches as they went. On April 25, a prospector named Abe Lee dipped his pan into a stream near the upper end of the valley and declared that he had found California — gold! The first rush to what’s now Leadville was on. By summer, some 5,000 people were strung out along California Gulch trying to find their fortunes.
The gold boom faded a few years later, and the area mostly emptied out. But by the mid-1870s, local miners William Stevens and Alvinus Wood learned that the heavy black sand that had bedeviled early gold panners was actually lead carbonate full of silver. As word got out, people flowed back in. August Meyer set up a sampling works near the foot of what’s now Harrison Avenue, and local merchants moved down the gulch from Oro City to join him. In April 1877, they picked the name Leadville for their booming new community. A year later, also in April, the city held its first election, choosing local merchant Horace Tabor as mayor. That month Tabor grubstaked two miners, George Hook and August Rische, who discovered the Little Pittsburg Mine, launching Tabor’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune.
The rest, as they say, is history. Now we celebrate April as Leadville History Month, a time to reflect on the city’s lively past as well as its ongoing preservation.
Last year saw the start of perhaps Leadville’s largest preservation project ever, the $10 million rehabilitation of the Tabor Opera House. Bricks and windows on the big south wall were repaired last summer, and this year work will shift to the main facade on Harrison Avenue. Many thanks to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the National Park Service, the National Main Street Partners in Preservation campaign and the City of Leadville for funding the first phase of construction.
Sadly, the ongoing pandemic prevents us from hosting any public events to mark Leadville History Month this year — we’ll be back in 2022. In the meantime, several museums and other sites are open for you to learn more about local history, including:
— National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.
— Healy House Museum and Dexter Cabin: Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
— Temple Israel: Friday-Monday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
— Evergreen Cemetery
Throughout April, look for the festive banners that will be flying along Harrison Avenue, and seek out the historic photos that the city has placed in storefronts along the street. Also be sure to reach out to any of us on the Leadville Historic Preservation Commission if you’re interested in assisting with local preservation efforts or learning about preservation tax credits for your own rehabilitations.
Happy Leadville History Month! Here’s to making more history in the future.
Leadville Historic Preservation Commission