Friday, August 17, 2018

Abandoned Silver Mines

Exploring Colorado

I've said it before, and I will say it again:  Local knowledge is the best knowledge.

Once we settled into The Delaware Hotel, we immediately went down the street to Leadville Outdoors to rent some walking sticks, which we had forgotten to bring with us.

"By the way, can you recommend an easy to moderate hike for us to do this afternoon?" my travel buddy asked the sales associate.

She proceeded to jot down at least six hikes we could take around Leadville.  "But I recommend the drive up Ball Mountain first.  You pass lots of abandoned silver mines along the way that are fun to explore."

So that's exactly what we did.

We were told to follow 5th Street through town where it then turns into CR l, a dirt road that winds around several abandoned mines until you reach the top of the mountain.  Easier said than done.  Somehow we took a wrong turn and ended up on a narrow, rocky road, filled with potholes and big rocks. Man, oh man, was I ever happy we had rented a high clearance Subaru Crosstrek.

But it didn't matter. I didn't care one bit that we were lost; we were having so much fun.  The picturesque abandoned mines provided us endless photo opportunities.  Not only that, but I had that giddy feeling I was traveling through time.  The mines of Leadville played a big role in American History.  The promise of gold lured thousands of immigrants from the east to the west.  People moved to these areas in droves.

 Mining carved the road to Colorado Statehood.

In Leadville, the first big boom was in 1860 when placer gold was discovered, but its claim to fame was the discovery of silver.  Between 1878 and 1884, Leadville became the world's largest producer of silver.  Carbonate, zinc and copper were also mined.  The mining, however, created an ecological disaster for the area.  Miners went from one lode to the next, leaving mountains of toxic slag behind. Streams and lakes became polluted.  Old black and white photographs at the Heritage Museum are horrifying.

The Superfund program has cleaned up the contaminated areas so I felt safe poking around the ruins.  Wear sturdy shoes though.  There are lots of rusty corrugated sheets of metal lying around, as well as barbed wire and splintered wood.

Later in the week, we took CR 3 to another historical mining area.  This road passes several interesting sites like the Matchless Mine and Baby Doe Cabin.   A brochure and map are available from the Visitor's Center.

We didn't get far, however, before the sky turned black and we were forced to run to our car to avoid being pelted by rain and hail.  This happens frequently in the Rockies, especially in the summer.

When we got back into town and ducked into the Pb Brewery for a beer, we met an old timer who was still physically active at the age of 79.  He engrossed us for two solid hours with tales of skiing, hiking, climbing and exploring Colorado. 

I've said it before, and I will say it again:  Local knowledge is the best knowledge.  We will be returning, I am sure of it.  Gold may be long gone from these mountains but there are Mother Lodes of Riches still to be had.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Highlights of Leadville

Exploring Colorado

Leadville, Colorado was our home base for five days while we toured the area.  Its elevation is a whopping 10,200 feet which earns it the title, "The Highest City in the United States."  My travel buddy needed to acclimate before climbing Mt. Elbert.

I found this small town ( Population:  2,700) full of fun and interesting things to do.  There are several museums, lots of antique and thrift stores, a pioneer cemetery and old, old buildings that line its main drag, Harrison Avenue.  Above town, dirt roads lead to abandoned silver mines and a narrow gauge railroad crawls along a mountain ridge, offering up breathtaking views of the valley below.

We stayed at the historic Delaware Hotel and I can't imagine staying anywhere else.  With its Victorian decor and old-worldly charm, I felt transported back in time--when Leadville was the "it" city in Colorado.

Here are the highlights:

Delaware Hotel

This hotel is filled with antiques.  Old dressers and buffets line the hallways.  In the lobby, a "mercantile" houses cases upon cases of china, silver, jewelry and art.  It was impossible for me to go straight to my room whenever I entered the hotel.  I had to meander around the cluttered lobby first.  I spotted something different and unique every time I looked.

Harrison Avenue

I grabbed a brochure and map from the hotel's desk and took a self-guided tour of the town.  Many of the original brick buildings from the late 1800's are still standing.  Some of them are very beautiful with French Mansard roofs, arched windows and detailed moldings.

City on a Hill Coffee and Espresso has delicious pastries and good strong coffee.  It was my "go to" place for my mid-morning coffee break.  After three days, I felt like a local.   I laughed when I popped into the Book Mine one morning to pick up a guidebook and the owner asked me,  "Ma'am could you mind the store while I go grab a cup of coffee?"

Healy House Museum

As an antique lover, I enjoyed walking through this Greek Revival two-story house.  A guide took me and two other tourists through its Victorian decorated rooms, entertaining us with stories from Leadville's wicked and colorful past.  It was built by a wealthy mining engineer who was also one of the founders of the town, August R. Meyer.  He later sold it to Patrick Healy, who turned it into a boarding house. 

Painted Cottages

My walks took me beyond the small downtown into the residential areas.  I fell in love with the old clapboard houses that are painted in a riot of colors.

The Evergreen Cemetery

My self-guided brochure included a map of this late 19th century cemetery.  I tried to follow it to the more interesting tomb stones of famous people, but got completely turned around and gave up.  To me, it was all about the ambiance anyway.  What a spooky place!  Straight out of a Stephen King novel (or perhaps more accurately, Edgar Allan Poe).  It is located underneath a thick grove of trees so it is dark and forbidding even in mid-afternoon.  I spent hours roaming around the elaborate wrought iron fences and reading the engravings. 

"Don't you get creeped out?" my travel buddy asked me later.

Oddly, I don't.  Visiting cemeteries makes me feel connected to the world.  I don't feel afraid.  I feel less afraid.

Tabor Opera House

The private tour I had of this fascinating theater was, by far, the most interesting of them all.  The story of H.A.W. Tabor and his scandalous affair with Baby Doe is the stuff of good old-fashioned tabloid trash. 

Tabor made his fortune providing supplies to miners in return for a share of their profits.  Within a few years he was a multi-millionaire.  He started to buy up all the local silver mines.  He lived a lavish lifestyle, spending money like it grew on trees.  He and Baby Doe were to lose everything once the price of silver dropped.  They died in poverty.

 But he did do one thing right.  He built this beautiful opera house for the community and it soon became a popular destination for tourists, putting Leadville on the map.  The Tabor Opera House became known as the grandest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco.  It attracted top names in entertainment like Houdini and Oscar Wilde.

It is slowly being restored to its former glory, but is still in use.  Sadly, we were leaving on the day that Comedian Josh Blue was going to perform.   

I've only covered the highlights. There is so much history in this little town, it is mind-boggling.  It can keep you going for weeks.

I left, however, with a feeling of dread.  I have witnessed so many of these old mining towns dry up and die.  I talked to many locals who were holding on by a thread.  When my travel buddy and I stayed here in the 90's with our two little boys, the town was bigger.  There aren't that many retail stores left. "No one can make a living here anymore," one woman told me.  "They are all moving to Denver." 

Even the Delaware Hotel as I recall, was a busy place back then.  Not so much now.  The restaurant is closed except for a small breakfast buffet for the few hotel guests that stay here. Someone else told me that most of the colorful houses I was photographing are vacation rentals.

Is Leadville destined to become a ghost town?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Alone on the Sagebrush Steppe

Exploring Colorado

We took a detour on our way to Steamboat Springs and although our original intention was to look for rocks and fossils, we ended up taking a hike through a vast ocean of sagebrush.  There is a 200 acre area outside of Kremmling where scientists have found hundreds of squid-like critters, fossilized in the rocks.  It didn't take much imagination to picture a dark blue sea covering this place as it once did in ancient times.  We were driving on waves of grass and brush.

"It's so beautiful," I said as we stepped out of our rented Subaru into an empty, endless landscape.

My travel buddy laughed.  "Only you would love such a place," he said.
Although there were many trails through this sagebrush steppe, we didn't see a single other person the entire time we were here.  Such isolation is a rare thing these days.  Mother Earth is being loved to death by a population of 7.6 billion people.  By 2050, it will explode to 10 billion. 

The day before we had been in Rocky Mountain National Park where traffic was bumper to bumper.  The high granite mountains were awesome but . . .tranquil?  No.

This was tranquil.

Yes, I do love these lonely places of the earth.  I seek them out more and more whenever I travel.  See the highlights, but then get off the beaten track--that is my modus operandi.  But is my travel buddy right?  Am I the only one who thinks this Sagebrush Steppe in Colorado is a beautiful place to spend the day?  And if it were crawling with people, would I feel the same way?

Is it the aloneness that is the appeal?


This lovely lonely place can be found outside Kremmling, Colorado.  Take US Highway 40 towards Steamboat, 9.5 miles, and then turn east on CR 25. There are several jeep two track dirt roads which will lead to ammonite sites, rock formations and long windy trails through the brush.  A high clearance car is needed!