Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

 Jan. 13, 2003

Letter from Leadville, continued

Outside of being an environmental nightmare, Leadville is so fine that it's my favorite town in Colorado.

If I wasn't going to move back to Waverly some day, Leadville would be the place, even though a cord of firewood costs $150 and you are going to need a lot of it.

Like Brigham Young in 1847, looking down into the valley, which is now Salt Lake City, I said when I first laid eyes on Leadville, "This is the place."

Leadville shining. Surrounded by its white mountains and its green, green pines, pines, pines.

Except that I was looking up and Brigham Young was looking down.

Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America. Two miles high; a mile higher than Denver, and 10,800 feet above sea level.

High? I'd say. Just have a beer in one of the numerous bars, including the oldest Irish pub, I believe, in America, called the "Silver Dollar," founded in 1884. The beer will go straight to your head.

There is a sign on the Masonic Temple claiming it as the highest Masonic Temple in North America. If you have ever been to a Shriners' convention, you know that's really a big deal, because Shriners compete with the Knights of Columbus at getting high.

How else do you get grown men to ride in circles down main street driving toy cars and wearing funny hats?

But it must be said for the Knights of Columbus that they gave their hall over to the USO in 1943 when the 10th mountain division was stationed just 18 miles out of Leadville.

There were 10,000 men and 5,000 mules training there for mountain combat. The Leadville mayor and the town fathers didn't want the troops in town at all ­ they were afraid of VD.

The poor troops were living in tents in below-zero weather and learning how to ski on Cooper Mountain, so they could go to fight in Europe's cold. Nine hundred ninety of them were killed in Italy that year.

Leadville also boasts the highest steeple in North America - Annunciation Catholic Church, which itself has a sign, "Beware of Avalanches."

The other Catholic parish in town is St. Joseph's, which started out as a Slovenian parish. It was in that church this Christmas I heard Christmas carols sung in Slovenian.

I had thought until then that I was sick of Christmas music. The Slovenian carols were almost as beautiful to me as the Polish carols I had come to know in the seminary.

Now the "Catholic ethnic" workers are Mexicans, so there are Masses in Spanish every weekend.

By the way, there is no oxygen in Leadville. I met Valentino Martinez who has trained three state boxing champions in Leadville.

He is bringing a whole team of Leadville boxers to compete in Los Angeles this month. He figures that training them at two miles high will make it easy for them to outlast the sea-level competition panting for breath after a few rounds. I kicked some money in for the trip along with everybody else in Leadville.

Just remember that for every 1,000 feet you climb, it gets four degrees colder.

Besides altitude statistics and altitude sicknesses, Leadville is a city of friendly, laid back people . . . and laid off people.

The last mines shut down in 1986 and laid off 3,000 miners in one day. There is still resentment towards the mining companies. It meant instant poverty for Leadville.

In Leadville, nobody ever honks a horn. Shoppers are an endangered species in Leadville, so everybody stops for them. Leadville is very unlike wealthy Aspen, where I saw a sign that read "If it's the tourist season, why can't we shoot them?"

Everyone is friendly in Leadville. I felt at home because it reminded me of Minnesota. I think the cold brings out the best in people.

Those who survive a month of 20-below and snow to the roof are always the better for it, just like in Minnesota. Leadville is the only place I have ever been where people don't talk about the weather.

What is there to talk about in a city that has only two seasons, winter and next winter? Our son had warned us, "Dad, it's Minnesota-cold there, so bring plenty of warm clothes."

In Minnesota I remember hearing of people who got lost in a blizzard between the house and the barn and were never seen again.

The same kind of thing happens in Leadville, where the world's richest lady, Baby Doe Tabor, froze to death in her own house back in 1935 and was found in the spring still sitting in her rocking chair.

Her house is still there, just outside of town. So is the old mine, a tourist attraction now.

Do you know how to tell when it's spring in Leadville? When the grass turns green down in Denver.

Leadville has it all - skiing on Cooper Mountain just outside the town, or skiing on a more major ski resort destination on Copper Mountain, a few thousand feet lower on your way back down the mountain road to Denver.

It's bargain skiing compared to the rich towns like Vail and Aspen.

There are good museums, good shopping on Main Street, and excellent guided tours. You can rent horses or bicycles and ride on a 10-mile trail that circles the town.

You can get into a paintball war right near where the 10th Mountain Division camped. You can check your e-mail at the city library.

One of the challenges in Colorado is to climb the "Fourteeners," mountains which are over 14,000 feet. There are 56 of those in the Colorado Rockies, many of them right around Leadville.

I want to brag here about this, because my son and his wife have now climbed several of them. My wife Jeanne has climbed three with them. She had also run a 26-mile marathon one time in Houston, but she said climbing a Fourteener was harder.

There is a gorgeous train ride from Leadville up to the Climax mine, the last mine still operating. The trains used to go all the way to Denver, hauling all the metals known to man, everything from gold ore to molybdenum, which is what is mined at Climax. Molybdenum is used to make tough bicycle frames, among many other things.

Now, there are backpackers who make the hike over those same tracks. The glory days of mining are over and won't come back this time. Gold was first discovered in 1859 when placer gold was found and the boom was on.

By 1878, Leadville was Colorado's second largest city with a population of 15,000. Now it's 2,629 and probably won't grow much. The casino option was voted down and Leadville seems too high and isolated for there to be much growth of any kind.

Also, the politicians seem to be anti-growth. At one time, four members of the city council, including the mayor, were Libertarians. All three parties, Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians cut down each others' campaign signs with chain saws, an ongoing crime every election.

The county sheriffs seem to get recalled on a regular basis in special elections. It's Colorado politics. Colorado, where by law, they still decide your place on the ballot with a deck of playing cards.

"Draw!" High card wins.

I know all politics are local, but in Leadville all politics are "loco."

In one day, I got to meet the very friendly mayor, the very friendly (volunteer) head of the Chamber of Commerce, and the editor of the local paper. I told all three of them I would put their names in my column, but I lied.

I don't even want them ever to see this column. They thought I liked Leadville, which I do, but I want to discourage people from moving to Leadville, because I want the place all to myself.


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