Leadville's life and economy have been historically tied to the mining industry. Its origins lie in a gold rush to California Gulch in the 1860s, and by 1873, Slabville, the community that would become Leadville had taken shape. As miners rushed to the area, Leadville boomed, and in the 1880s, it was the second largest city in Colorado with 30,000 residents. The area was rich in minerals, and money was to be made in gold, silver, lead, copper, and zinc. Entrepreneurs also accumulated fortunes through providing services and equipment for miners. Names familiar nationally, Meyer Guggenheim, Marshall Field, Charles Boettcher, Horace Tabor, and Charles H. Dow of Dow Jones and Company, all have historic ties to Leadville.
As mining depleted the original sources of ore, another metal, molybdenum, an element used to strengthen steel, brought Leadville back into a boom cycle in the twentieth century. With the onset of World War II, and the acceleration of military production, molybdenum mining increased. This together with the construction of Camp Hale provided Leadville with a mid-century economic revival. In the postwar period, the military's decision to dismantle Camp Hale was a significant blow to the town, and the Climax Molybdenum Mine became its mainstay as the major employer and the bedrock of the town's economy and the county's tax base. The mine at Bartlett Mountain rose to prominence, employing 3,000 people and producing 75 percent of the world's molybdenum.
By the 1980s, a series of circumstances converged, the price of molybdenum dropped, foreign competition increased, and Phelps Dodge, the company that owned Climax Mine, had opened Henderson Mine, a new, more efficient operation, near Berthoud Pass. The closing of Climax in the early 1980s devastated Leadville. Retail businesses closed, unemployment hit eight percent, and the county's tax base dropped from $250 million to $44 million. One-third of the population left Leadville. Those people remaining took whatever jobs were available, approximately half finding work in the service industry at Copper Mountain and in the Vail Valley. The days when a miner made an annul income of $45,000 with benefits are gone. The median annual income for men in Leadville as of 2000 was $28,125 and over thirteen percent of the population lived in poverty. The local schools fell into disrepair, forcing Leadville subsequently become part of a lawsuit against the state of Colorado seeking funds for educational capital construction.
Leadville had to reinvent itself and establish a new economic base. The town turned to tourism. This was not the first time it pursued the tourist dollar. In the 1890s, the silver market fell and the town sought visitors to revive the economy through attractions like the four-story Ice Palace, which opened in the winter of 1896 complete with an ice-skating rink and a heated ballroom. In the 1980s, Leadville, with its rough and tumble image, could not compete with the more glamorous neighboring towns of Aspen and Vail in skiing, restaurants, and art galleries. Instead, the town identified the abundant opportunities for outdoor activities and an exciting, colorful history as the foundations for its revival. Leadville had a National Historic Landmark Designation to build upon, and the charm of quaint Victorian homes set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains held tremendous appeal.
With the new direction charted, Leadville had to first overcome a major hurdle. The mining industry, a pillar of the history tourism revival, had opened fissures in the earth allowing heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc to leach into the soil and surface and ground water. California Gulch, where Leadville mining had begun, poisoned the upper reaches of the Arkansas River, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared Leadville and a twenty square-mile zone around the town a Superfund site. Tremendous progress has been made on the multimillion-dollar cleanup project during the twenty years since the designation. Due to EPA-mandated water treatment plants, trout have returned to the Arkansas River headwater,s and it is anticipated that work on California Gulch will be completed in 2004.
A number of projects aided the revitalization of Leadville. One of the most prominent has been the construction of a 12.5-mile loop around the town known as the Mineral Belt Trail. The trail provides all-season recreation for hikes, bicycles, snow shoeing, and cross-country skiing. From various vantage points along the trail, the area's historic mining sites are visible; California Gulch, Great O'Sullivan Mine, Moyer Mine, and Horace Tabor's famous Matchless Mine. Even though the Guggenheim fortune got its start in Leadville, the Guggenheim Foundation's only contribution to the community has been $25,000 to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum chronicles the history of the mining industry through displays, dioramas, and artifacts and provides visitors the opportunity to view an excellent ore and gem collection.
Colorado's State Historic Fund, dedicated to historical preservation and supported by proceeds from gambling, aided the revival by providing more than 1.2 million dollars for historic renovation. Among the beneficiaries have been the City Hall and the Tabor Opera House, which again hosts concerts and cultural events. One of the most impressive private renovation projects in downtown Leadville has been the historic Delaware Hotel, which offers a variety of charming antique filled rooms and events such as mystery weekends to draw visitors from the Denver area. Perhaps no event celebrates the history of Leadville like Boom Days. The festival held for over fifty years is marked by a parade, a dance, an rod and gun show and the 22-mile International Pack Burro Race from Leadville to Fairplay. Miners compete in a variety events that test traditional skills such as jackleg drilling (drilling in rock mechanicaly and by hand), hand mucking, and hand steeling. The Library of Congress designated the celebration as a Colorado Local Legacy of National Interest. Building on the historic revival, a number of antique shops have opened and several Victorian homes have found new life as bed and breakfast inns.
The scenic beauty of the Leadville area also serves as a natural attraction. Visitors can experience it from a far on the Leadville and Southern Scenic Railroad or by car along the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound. Ski Cooper, the former training site for the 10th Mountain Division, provides downhill skiing, and Leadville is a jumping off point for access to the 10th Mountain Division Hut and Trail System. During the summer tourists can camp and canoe at Turquoise Lake, raft the Arkansas River through class one to class five rapids, or hike the Colorado Trail. While the prosperity of the boom days has not returned, Leadville has made great strides in revitalizing itself and marketing its multitude of attractions.