Following the Road to Riches My Journey


Jason Schleisman

Ah, Leadville, Colorado ~ the highest incorporated city in the United States. Nestled up in the breathtakingly beautiful Rocky Mountains at an altitude of 10,152 feet, very few people make the trek to visit this historic mining town. But I have.

Leadville, where the winters are long and the summers cut short, is famous for shaping the lives of many famous people. While probably the best known is our own Titanic heroine, Margaret (Maggie) Brown, another Titanic personality, Benjamin Guggenheim, also owed the founding of his family’s fortune in 1881 to the mines of Leadville. In fact, at least until recently, the Guggenheim family still held interests in mining under the present company name ASARCO ~ originally purchased by the Guggenheim family in 1901. The legendary Horace, Augusta, and ‘Baby Doe’ Tabor triangle (made famous by American composer, Douglas Moore, in The Ballad of Baby Doe) also began here. The stories go on, but for this trip, I chose to focus mainly on Margaret and J.J. Brown.....
Overshadowed by the two tallest mountains in Colorado that top 14,400 feet each, Leadville is not the easiest place to access, especially in winter. There are three main roads that connect Leadville to the rest of civilization, all of them mountainous and winding. Driving there is not for the faint-of-heart or the short-of-breath. In fact, as we drove along on a road with no guard rails that, in some places, became very narrow and one-lane-only regardless of direction, a heard of wild Bighorn Sheep decided to cross right in front of us. I caught the ‘tail’ end of their crossing with my camera.


Obviously, the first thing one notices about Leadville is the surrounding mountains. Truly a sight to behold. The smaller of the two mountains, Mt. Massive, towers over the city. Had I ridden in a helicopter, this image is similar to what I would have seen of Mt. Massive dominating Leadville (courtesy of Google Earth).

Leadville remains very much as it always has for the past 100 years. Of course, as with almost any other place in the world, some modern progress has encroached here too, albeit at a tortoise pace. Most of the town is still composed of its original buildings dating back to the end of the 19th century. The main street, called “Harrison Avenue” is most impressive. The entire street is lined on both sides with original buildings save for the court-house (the original court-house burned down in the 1940’s and was replaced by a 1950’s monstrosity). However, most buildings and houses that remain today were around back when Maggie and J.J. lived there. For me, it was a real pleasure to strap on my "Molly" boots and walk around Leadville to get a feeling for what Margaret got to see every day.

Time has definitely changed the faces of some of the buildings and also taken many away, but what remains is truly the main essence of the town itself and is certainly worthy of admiration. Here is a view looking northwest up Harrison Avenue from around the time when Margaret and J.J. lived there:

Here is a similar view today:


And a much much better view for comparison:

Aspen 017edit1

Many of the same buildings are still quite recognizable. Note the brick, 3-story Tabor Opera House on the right. A monumental feat built in 1879 by mining magnate Horace Tabor, the opera house once played host to Anna Held, John Philip Sousa, Harry Houdini, and Oscar Wilde himself. Dr. Kirsten Iversen has speculated that this venue was frequented by Maggie and J.J. and that Maggie’s experiences here helped to develop her life-long love of theater. Once considered to be the best and finest performance venue between San Francisco and St. Louis, the opera house looks much the same as then, and still hosts local community theater as well as traveling performers today:

A view from the past above ^ ......
For Margaret and J.J.'s Leadville adventures, let us begin at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When Maggie first came to Leadville from Hannibal, Missouri, she was following in the footsteps of her siblings, Mary Ann and Daniel. Maggie’s sister, Mary Ann, had married a blacksmith named Jack Landrigan. Jack convinced Daniel to move out West from Hannibal to Colorado where he felt there were better opportunities for prosperity. The three of them did so, and arrived in Leadville in 1883. Jack set up his blacksmith shop for himself, new bride, and brother-in-law at 529 East 5th Street. This lot is all that remains of Jack’s shop today:

Aspen 005edit3

I stood in the middle of East 5th Street to take this photo. The house on the right is quite old and is obviously original to Leadville’s boom days. If only walls could talk…….

I used to live in Longmont, Colorado. Now I live in Springfield, Missouri. I've been to Hannibal so all this has special meaning for me. It's a small world after all.
Daniel briefly returned to Hannibal before coming back to Leadville to stay. Upon his return to Leadville, he rented a house at 722 East 5th Street, two blocks up the road from Jack and Mary Ann. He then sent for Maggie and their sister Helen to join him in the spring of 1886. Helen only came briefly for a visit, but Maggie stayed. This was the first house of many that Maggie would live in during her life in Leadville. And the rocky foreground lot in the linked image is all that remains of that small house today. The house on the left, which would have belonged to one of Maggie's neighbors, is original and still lived in:

Leadville 023edit

Farther up East 5th Street and to the right a few lots down, this solitary house below was also once one of Maggie's neighbors.........

Maggie kept house for Daniel, but their funds were tight, so she took a job in the dry goods store of Daniels, Fisher, and Smith, located on busy Harrison Avenue, sewing draperies and carpets. I wasn't able to locate where this firm was originally located, but no matter. I shall return again! Here is a view looking southeast on Harrison Avenue taken from atop Leadville's "Capitol Hill".


The Tabor Opera House is all the way down the avenue on the left, and cannot be seen in this view. The Tabor Grand Hotel is the large, 4-story salmon-colored building in the middle of the avenue on the right. The traffic looks busy because it was shortly after 5PM, in other words, "rush hour" on Friday night. Usually, the streets are quite empty...........
And so, life that summer of 1886 continued at a very brisk pace for Maggie and her family. In fact, Maggie's life would change forever by early fall of that year. Having a very strong Irish background that steadfastly revolved around the Roman Catholic Church, Maggie attended regular church services and social functions. The Church of the Annunciation, built in 1879, was the center of this activity:



View from the rear of the church looking East towards Iron Hill.

The silvery church spire was the tallest structure in Leadvile both when it was built, as well as now. It was often used by miners as a comforting reference point as they scoured the surrounding hillsides.

Many important events occurred under the eves of this church, including the much-publicized funeral of 'Baby Doe' Tabor after she was found dead in her squatty Matchless Mine cabin in 1935:

And as it is today:
And of course, one of those important events in this church just so happened to be the marriage of Margaret Tobin and James Brown at 2PM on the first of September, 1886. Maggie and J.J. first met at a church picnic that summer. Maggie had indeed mentioned that she was holding out for a rich man to save her and her family from poverty, but although J.J. was far from rich, the sparks flew, and their courtship was very short. In the space of not even 6 months, Maggie had left all she knew in Hannibal, started life in a new town with a new job, and met and married a financially poor man, all by the age of 19.......

Church marriage entry:

The original alter (in rear with steps against the wall):

Rear of church:
Very interesting posts about Leadville and its connection to Margaret Brown. Thanks for posting this.
So, is Leadville history and preservation minded? Is there anything aimed at bringing in tourists, or is it just a functioning mid-size town with an interesting history?

I have ambivalent feelings about the former. There is GOOD historic preservation, but so often what we see is a cosmetic prettification that strips away the patina of age, and leaves a place clean and preserved but at the same time bland.
Thanks for sharing you're trip with us, Jason.
It was nice getting to know Margaret "Molly" Tobin Brown
But wait! There's more! I shall attempt to add to this thread as I am able.

Leadville is a town whose party was over some time ago. It grew up around mining, but that plug has long since been pulled. Most of the town has now been designated a National Historic Landmark. I consider it a jewel in the rough. It definitely has a small tourist following, but due to the fact that it’s not easily accessible and there are no ski slopes in its immediate vicinity, most tourists divert to nearby Vail or Aspen which are charming, kept up, and offer more in the way of activities and accessibility. As we discovered, there are very few places (like two) to sit down and have a nice dinner in Leadville. There are quite a number of bars (pubs) in operation, some very historic as I shall reveal in a future post, but they primarily serve greasy burgers and fries type fare. Odd, considering that Leadville was once second only to Denver for size and amenities.

Most exteriors of Leadville buildings have been preserved through no special effort. They are as they always have been. It seems like most people didn’t bother changing them save for maybe a few coats of paint over the years, so they stayed as is. Some of the old miner's houses have their original, weather beaten wooden slat siding with no paint at all - and yet are still lived in! Interiors have definitely changed, but you’ll still see the occasional, ornate tin ceiling or interior wooden moulding work. There have been efforts by some, like early Colorado historian Caroline Bancroft, to deliberately preserve a few of the buildings. However, to illustrate an example of “bright and shiny”, “better than new” restoration work, let us read about poor Augusta Tabor.

To very briefly sum up, Augusta Tabor (née Pierce) married poor stone-cutter (as is in rock quarry worker) Horace Tabor in 1857 at the age of 24. She moved from her comfortable East coast life out West with Horace to Kansas, and then together with their new baby son to prospect for ore in Colorado. In 1860, Augusta is considered to be the first woman in the remote mining camps of the mountains near Leadville. She was very prudent and thrifty, cooking, serving as camp banker, postmistress, and camp laundress. It was she who managed what little money Horace did have carefully ~ enabling them to survive. After several unsuccessful mining attempts, Horace and Augusta began to supply provisions for other miners, served as gold and silver essayers, and eventually, Horace became the first mayor of Leadville, building a small house on Harrison Avenue in 1877.

Upon ‘grubstaking’ some German prospectors on a new claim, and several subsequent shrewd business moves later, the Tabors became very wealthy almost overnight from the mines of Leadville. Despite this new fantastic wealth visited upon her in mid-life, Augusta was not happy. She preferred a simple lifestyle, and when Horace, now serving as Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor, built her a magnificent mansion in Denver, she refused to sleep in the master bedroom preferring instead to sleep in the servant’s quarters and milking their cow herself. Horace did not understand Augusta’s dislike for wealth and excess, and he soon took solace in the arms of beautiful divorcée Elizabeth McCourt ‘Baby’ Doe, who was only too happy to receive his lavish attention.

Horace filed for divorce from Augusta, but she refused. A very public divorce battle ensued wherein Augusta, not being stupid, fought tooth and nail for a piece of Horace’s fortune as consolation for his infidelity. Horace was eventually granted the divorce, and married the much younger ‘Baby Doe’ in 1882. Augusta was granted a very considerable monthly allowance (even by today’s standards), several pieces of property, and the house in Denver. Augusta moved to Pasadena, California where she died unhappy, lonely, broken-hearted, but still socially respected (unlike her husband) in 1895 ~ leaving her son by Horace a considerable fortune.

Horace lost all his money to bad investments and the silver bust of 1893. He died a pauper shortly thereafter in 1899, leaving ‘Baby Doe’ and his two young daughters by her with nothing. ‘Baby Doe’ took her daughters and moved into a small, one-room cabin on Fryer Hill above Leadville that had formerly served as the tool shed for her husband’s “Matchless Mine”. While she did not own it because Horace had long since lost it, the new owners were gracious enough to let her live there for the rest of her life. Her older daughter borrowed some money and ran away to live with her grandmother in Wisconsin. The other daughter stayed with her at the mine for a time, but then went on to have quite a series of adventures that ultimately led to her grizzly murder in Chicago some years later.

‘Baby Doe’ was a proud woman, and lived alone at the decaying mine, trying to work it by herself. She lived on the mountain for 35 years, her famed beauty fading away, gradually growing delirious and only able to survive through the charity of friends and neighbors. She was found dead in her filthy cabin in 1935. Photos were immediately taken when her body was removed:

Baby Doe walking from her cabin:

Interior of her cabin right after she was found:

Another view:

Her rotting bed:

By 1953, ‘Baby Doe’s’ cabin had been cleaned of trash and preserved pretty much as it was when she lived in it. It is now a museum.

By 1930, the original, modest 1877 Tabor home Horace had built for himself and Augusta in Leadville had definitely seen better days:

The 1877 house was moved back away from Harrison Avenue by the Tabors in 1879 when the land it occupied became valuable for commerce. Here is the Tabor home as it stands in Leadville today at 116 East 5th Street:


Note the front porch has now been enclosed, it has been added to, and it is considerably more doctored-up from what it once was when new.
Here is a visual of our little trio.

Augusta Tabor, 1870:

Horace Tabor, 1883:

Glorious ‘Baby Doe’