After an insane week in the lab a road trip to the cool meadows of the nearby mountain range was just what the doctor called for. It was the last weekend before the family- one teacher and one kid-  return to school. Summer break 2009 is history.

We piled in the car and pointed it uphill towards Leadville, Colorado. The planetary atmosphere thinly blankets this insanely high mountain city. It was just what I needed to clear my scrambled mind. Nothing like blinding sunshine and mild oxygen starvation to reset a brain in chronic spasm from sensory overload. 

Leadville sits at 10,152 feet above sea level.  If you doubt the effect on your stamina, just take a short sprint in any direction. Or just plod up the stairs of your hotel. Lordy.  All of those business dinners- all that lovely Cabernet and creme brulee- and years of driving a desk have caught up with me.

Leadville is located in the Colorado mineral belt and began to populate with fortune seakers about the time of the Colorado gold rush in 1859. Some placer gold was found in the streams, particularly in what was then called California Gulch, but for the most part Leadville became a silver camp.

In 1874, two investors with metallurgical training, Alvinius B. Woods and William H. Stevens arrived in Leadville and analyzed the muds found in the local sluicing operations. According to A Companion to the American West, edited by William Francis Deverell, (2004, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 0-631-21357-0, p. 319)  Woods and Stevens found the heavy black mud so problematic for gold sluicing was in fact composed of lead carbonate with high levels of silver.  Woods and Stevens invested $50,000, quietly buying as many claims as they could and began hydraulic mining operations immediately.

By 1890 there were nearly 90 mines in operation employing 6000 miners. At its peak there were 14 smelter operations supporting the mines. Leadville was a genuine boom town with the expected mix of characters.

A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing at the top.

All mining towns have characters who go on to dominate local legends and stories. Among the well-known-for-being-famous rags to riches to rags players in Leadville are Horace and Agusta Tabor, along with Horace’s mistress and 2nd wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe”.

To make a long story short, Horace was a struggling shop keeper who invested in a mine east of Leadville. Though it was salted by the previous owner to entice buyers, Tabor dug 25 ft further down the shaft and struck a rich and extensive vein of silver ore.  The operation was called the Matchless Mine, after Tabor’s favorite brand of chewing tobacco.

According to the tour operators, Tabor operated the Matchless Mine 24/7 for 13 years, pulling an average of $2000/day of silver out of it. At its peak, the mine is said to have employed 100 people. Miners were paid the common rate of $3.00 per day to climb 365 ft to the bottom of the shaft for 12 hour shifts.

Matchless Mine Surface Workings

Matchless Mine Surface Workings

Gangue Dump Detail

Tailings Dump Detail

The underground workings of the mine followed the vein structure and focused on sending concentrated ore to the surface. Buckets carrying approximately one ton of ore per load (my estimate) were tipped into ore carts and rolled into the ore house for hand sorting. The most highly concentrated and valuable ore was dumped down a chute for loading into a rail car and the gangue (or tailings) was dumped into the gulch.  

An assay building (not shown) was on site to provide a continuous assay and accounting of silver sent to the smelter in Pueblo, Colorado. Unlike many other mine operators, Tabor owned a rail operation and had a spur at the mine for pickup and delivery of ore. Many mine operators had to employ mule-skinners to cart wagon loads of ore to a rail siding for transport to the nearest smelter.

In 1893 the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the collapse of the railroad industry bubble were part of a panic that lead to a crash in silver prices. Tabor lost everything and, as a respected public figure, was appointed postmaster of Denver for a short time. Eventually Tabor died at age 69 in 1899. Ex-wife Agusta had invested her divorce settlement wisely in Denver and lived comfortably. Widow Baby Doe Tabor was found frozen stiff in her shack at the Matchless Mine in 1935.

Matchless Mine Shack

Matchless Mine Shack

All of the digging from the boom time of Leadville has left an enduring legacy for those who live in the watershed. Much of the mining activity occurred uphill, east of the city and as a result, that area is pock marked with many large colorful tailings heaps. While the colors are interesting to ponder and sample, the ground and surface waters are greatly affected by aqueous extraction of metals from these piles.

If you stand next to one of these heaps, you can’t help but notice the smell of sulfur. The ore and tailings are enriched in sulfides and once exposed to air and water, oxidation occurs to make corrosive runoff. This is a kind of heap leaching phenomenon that will eventually exhaust itself, but only at the cost of water quality.

Boomtown Legacy

Boomtown Legacy (Copyright 2009 All rights reserved)

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