Leadville: Oro City II
John Wheelmaker
August, 1997

Old Abe Lee shouted "Eureka!" as his rusted grey pan scooped GOLD from California Gulch, that precious substance rare enough to base a whole society on. And he did it just a few miles from here, east of Harrison Avenue, the main street that weaves around this town.

After his fateful, unmuffled shout echoed through the valleys of Elbert, Massive, and the collegiate peaks, word got out. The fateful warning that the "river is going to run red" was whispered from mountaineer to mountaineer, and hundreds streamed into their town with nothing but their pans, bags, food, and guns. The river ran red. They called the place Oro City. Now that place is nothing but mine waste, fluvial gold deposits, and a bunch of EPA scientists studying the Upper Arkansas River Basin to make sure it's not all toxic. It's no Rocky Flats, but it's sad as hell to watch a boomtown become a ghost town.

Maybe the best reflection of the fall of Leadville comes in a parable.

Horace Tabor, one of the wealthiest prospectors and businessmen in the nation at the turn of the century, left his home of Vermont to become a quarryman at 19. He headed for the west shortly after, when he was 25 years old. He moved to Denver with the '59ers in 1859 at 29, and eventually settled in Leadville.

One of Tabor's best moves was grubstaking Little Pittsburg mine. He put up the capital necessary to start the mine and reaped the profits. He made a million dollars selling the mine and started exercising his influence in Leadville. He was the Silver King. Even now, most of the important monuments in town are named after him.

Tabor eventually got into politics, and as many politicians do when they become wealthy and gain power, he divorced his wife for someone younger. For Tabor, it was Elizabeth McCourt, who later became "Baby Doe" Tabor.

Baby Doe was born in 1854 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. She was an ice skater, which perfectly prepared her for the feet-deep snow of Leadville. She married Harvey Doe, Jr. shortly after winning a skating championship that made Doe take notice of her blonde beauty, and they moved to Central City, Colorado to work on Harvey's father's mine.

Unfortunately, Harvey's plans weren't successful, and Baby Doe received her nickname when she went to work at the mine herself to help make ends meet. Harvey's lack of success pushed the wealthy Tabor and Baby Doe together.

Their meeting has acquired such a mythology that Douglas Moore and John Latouche wrote an opera about it called "The Ballad of Baby Doe." Whenever I think about their first meeting, I always imagine her singing "The Willow Song" and Tabor seeing her, blonde and beautiful, singing in front of a crowd.

Tabor convinced Baby Doe to leave Central City to move to Leadville. Tabor divorced his first wife, Augusta, and married Baby Doe in 1882. Tabor was 52, and Baby Doe was 28.

They enjoyed incredibly prosperous times together, as Leadville's mines were booming, and they controlled a considerable amount of the town's capital. But with the passing of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, establishing gold rather than silver as the official U.S. currency, Tabor's fortune lost nearly all of its value.

Tabor became the Postmaster of Denver, but their wealth did not last. During his last years, Tabor still controlled the Matchless Mine in Leadville. His last words to her, said in with fervent belief that the Matchless contained hidden gold, was "take care of the Matchless."

Baby Doe took Tabor's final wish as a new religion and stayed there for the next 35 years. She turned old and grey, and continually begged money from anyone who would listen to try to mine the gold out of the Matchless, the gold that was never there.

In 1935, Baby Doe Tabor was found on the floor of an old shack, blue and dead from frostbite. There was no more wood for the fire.

This is my parable. The dessication began long before I was born, but for so many years, I didn't even know it. Changes are caused by external forces which affect internal forces, and the minimization of external forces means the minimization of change. This was the philosophy I was taught: things were already perfect. We had a house, food on the table, and stability. What else was necessary in life? I grew up in a small town, and I stayed in that small town for years until the change.

Conservatism was the name of the game: maintaining the status quo in an increasingly turbulent period. It was not our place to question normalcy; it was our place to brandish normalcy as a saber, with the express purpose of intimidating others into conforming their thoughts to ours, to God's. If you keep a group of people in one particular place for an extended period of time, it makes it increasingly easier to control them by controlling their stream of information. A stream of information determines consciousness, and those that are least conscious are the easiest to manipulate. In retrospect, I see that struggle becoming increasingly difficult in the years I grew up there.

We had our station wagon. We had the local supermarket. We had tense moments after getting caught calling home after curfew. Our parents were so proud that they had arrived at this point that my siblings and I were forbidden to progress emotionally. If you were out past 9, you called home. If you were out past 10, they were waiting for you when you came home. It's not unfamiliar to all of you, and I'm not telling a sob story; I'm fundamentally asserting that the way our generation was taught the ways of the world was incorrect.

I was one of the smart ones in high school at Lake County they didn't know what to do with, so they put me in charge of the school newspaper. My journalism teacher pushed me to apply for a clerk job at the Herald Democrat, the local paper, because she said it would be a perfect fit for me. And with her limited perspective, it was the best advice she could have given me. Her problem was that when she advised me about this, her mind was zoomed in on Leadville.

So I started at the Herald and worked my way up. The office environment was stringent and stressful at times and loose others. Our contributors were consistently late, and it was always a rush using the linotype to lay everything out at the eleventh hour. I was getting coffee for people before they found out I was a linotype expert and managed to be promoted to layout assistant editor after two years.

We shot rubber bands at each other in the office, and there were the typical writing room pepper sessions of tossing around foam footballs while we talked about our beats. Looking back, it was a complete joke. Any time the mayor did anything, even if it was putting up weird totem poles on his lawn, it made the front page. There was the blotter, which was essentially local town gossip, and a letter to the editor section that bordered on the ridiculous. Honestly, who writes letters to the Herald? Most of the time, we didn't even read them, and it was basically a Dear Abby column with letters carefully fabricated. Probably the worst of them was the comic artist who submitted these ludicrously unfunny "slices of life." He was from Birmingham and moved up here for his health. He always drew a romanticized picture of his face under each panel, commenting on his little characters. Total bullshit, even worse than the Family Circus. The guy died five years later.

People came and went. Mostly went. The obituaries section was always larger than the baby announcements. Our town was ending, and we were chronicling it badly, with typos and ads running backwards. Boom Days, the celebration of the birth of the city, was one of the only specks of life still remaining. People who cared about people who clung to the town would come up, and we would throw a big parade down Harrison. We threw a parade, a parade with streamers and Coors Light, and the towns neighboring us would either come by to check things out and maybe get a few free ones. Either that or they would just stay at their own diners and on their front steps to laugh at us from afar.

I started getting fed up with things in the early '90s. I had made a few trips to Canon City of all places and strangely observed the same Leadvlile phenomenon there, except the town talk was about the Canon City locals. I realized that all of these conversations over tea or coffee at people's front room tables were essentially meaningless other than for temporary entertainment for whomever was involved.

So what was my solution to this? To stay in Leadville. Of course, I had my reasons. I thought this would be a good way to chronicle the demise. But the problem is that it just wouldn't die. It lingered on life support with the tourists coming up to train for the Olympics in the high altitude or to find the cheapest place to commute to the ski resorts nearby. There's this town that I can't remember the name of that's built into the side of a cliff. I want to call it Clifton, but I'm really not too sure. That's what I feel like Leadville is. They dug into the side of a mountain, and the more they dug, the closer they were to falling into the canyon below. And when the houses and markets plunge in, the gas stations dumping their expensive wares into the deep ravine, I will finally be free of the town. But I will wait until those last few prospectors dig their picks into the last hanging rock that stabilizes the cliff. Then, the city will leave me forever, and I will make sure to be out by then, driving on the highway above and watching the descent at 9.8 meters per second.

And that was my attitude towards Leadville until I began digging deeper into its history as an unwitting center of the counter-culture. Almost everyone in the town will tell you the story of when Doc Holliday came to town.

Everyone knows the yarn. The infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was Doc, Wyatt, Wyatt's older brother Virgil, and his younger brother Morgan. The four of them were the law in the town, and they were battling it out against the McLaurys and Clantons, a bunch of cattle-rustling killers who had it out for the Marshals.

It happened at 3 in the afternoon on October 26, 1881 in a vacant lot behind the corral. The McLaurys and Clantons started making death threats against the Earps, and the fight stewed for a few days until it happened.

The actual gunfight lasted about 30 seconds. Wyatt wasn't hurt at all. Virgil's calf, Morgan's back, and Doc's hip were hit, but Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury were all dead by the end. Ike Clanton and Bill Claiborne ran off.

Then the aftermath: Wyatt and Doc were charged with murder, but the judge and the grand jury ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to indict either of them. Virgil was shot a few weeks after the grand jury hearing, and Morgan was shot in the back three months later in Tombstone. But what happened to Wyatt and Doc?

They went on a vendetta ride, out for the blood of those responsible for Morgan's murder. Wyatt wrote in his biography that he shot Frank Stilwell, a deputy who he thought was out to spoil the vendetta ride. Doc never claimed responsibility, and after a fight with Wyatt, they parted ways. Wyatt kept traveling with Josephine Marcus by his side. They gambled, gold-rushed, and moved to Hollywood years later.

But Doc Holliday went the only place he could have: Colorado. He was arrested in Denver for the Stilwell killing, but again, the court found there wasn't enough evidence to try him. Wyatt and Doc met in June that year in Gunnison, and afterwards, Doc Holliday moved to Leadville, Colorado.

I suspect what was happening in Leadville was just as hard on Doc as the events at the Corral and the vendetta ride. He started drinking and got hooked on laudanum, and he lost his gambling luck. Leadville was his home until he couldn't handle the two mile high altitude and moved down to Glenwood. He died after asking for a drink of whiskey in bed. No one thought that's how Doc Holliday would go out, laid up in bed with a shot of whiskey and without a gun in his hand. Neither did Doc. His last words: "This is funny."


There are ghosts in this town, and they're not all cowboys. Oscar Wilde was here in 1882 on his "I Have Nothing To Declare But My Genius" American tour. He lectured on the early Florentines, and described the turn-of-the-century miners sleeping through his lecture "as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home."

Horace Tabor himself gave Wilde a tour of Mineshaft #8 on Fryer Hill at the Matchless, the mine which Baby Doe haunted when she froze to death there years later. Wilde was lowered down into the mine on top of a silver bucket and gave himself a code of commendation for "being graceful even in a bucket."

Afterwards, Wilde was given a drill and asked to open a lode called "The Oscar." He was dismayed that the Leadvillians didn't give him a share in the lode's earnings, but ate, drank whiskey, and smoked anyway.

That night, Wilde went to a bar "with the miners and the female friends of miners" and continued his drinking. He walked over to the piano and noticed a sign sitting there which said "Please don't shoot the pianist; he is doing his best." Wilde called it "the only rational method of art criticism" that he came across during his trip. As he later wrote, "I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was."

In his Impressions of America, Wilde chronicled his lecture at the Tabor Grand Opera House: "From Salt Lake City one travels over great plains of Colorado and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville, the richest city in the world. It has also got the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a revolver. I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me. They are miriers -- men working in metals, so I lectured them on the Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry 'Who shot him?'"

And that was Wilde's trip to Leadville.

Outside of the counter-cultural history, there is a rich history as well.

Bernadette Johnson told me that back in 1912, Pope Pius X came to Leadville, and the town's many Catholic residents were overjoyed. It was winter, and there were feet of snow on the ground. He rode through in a specialized automobile, past the mines, the stores, and the people in their Sunday best. He presided over Mass, and Bernadette remembers her mother kissing his ring and thinking how lucky she was to meet such a great man.

A few days before the infamous Knowthing Crystal Palace opening, I drove out by Soda Springs to check out the reconstruction. I had seen the Palace being built from afar and had the feeling that the people doing it were pretty strange when I saw their clothing. Some of the workers were wearing snow pants and thick coats with angel wings glued on the back. Others had somehow already adapted to the bitter Leadville cold, wearing thin sweatshirts and jeans amidst enormous banks of snow. This was the same weather that froze Baby Doe to death, but the people I saw that day were obviously thriving.

I got out of the car, and someone ran up to hand me a shovel and ask if I wanted a line. I told him that I wasn't here to help with the palace but that I was a journalist with the Herald, thinking that would improve my standing with him. The kid, who I later found out was Alan Pacific, shook his head and said, "They're not mutually exclusive. If you want an interview, you better get to work. After that, he walked away. These people already knew they were going to be written about, and so they leveraged their advantage by getting something before they gave something.

When Alan asked me if I wanted a line, I thought he was asking if I wanted him to deliver a line, a soundbite, since he perceived me as a typical Leadville townie. Later, I realized my naivety. They were hopped up on more than trucker pills-- they were snorting amphetamines all around. Everyone was snorting amphetamines. It was making them all faster. They had all found this method. They were lost in their speed reverie and simultaneously getting shit done. Most importantly, they weren't going batshit insane. This surprised me, because when my brother Joey and his friends used to pop benzedrine before he died, they didn't know what they were doing. Someone would go crazy and start screaming that the roaches in their drawings were coming alive after 4 days awake, and everyone would start filling up with machismo and aggression. Then someone would get the shit kicked out of them, and they would postpone the binge for another month.