Leadville:  The Highest City in America

As I mentioned in my June 25 entry, (“Putting on the Brakes”), I spent all of July in Lake City doing two things.  The main thing I did was teach myself web design, and specifically a web technology called Joomla.  During July, as I worked in the Lake City library each day, I built the framework for my website and learned how to 1). post photos and captions, 2). create and post interactive 360-degree panorama photos, and 3). create and post web maps showing where I’d been on my trip.  It was a lot of work, with a lot of trial-and-error, but by the end of July, I had a basic website framework – though I hadn’t created much content yet.

Above:  Lake City was my home for seven weeks, from mid-June until the end of July, as I set up my website.  I also visited lots of favorite places and saw some old friends from the days when I worked as a ranger here.

But I also had some fun, because the other thing I did during July was visit a lot of the places I’d worked when I was a BLM ranger in this area.  I hadn’t been to some of these places in almost 30 years and it was great to go back.

But before I get into that, I'll tell you about an interesting daytrip I took in late June.  I drove up to Leadville, Colorado, which is located about four hours north of Lake City.  Pronounced “Led-ville” and not “Leed-ville,” admittedly it’s not the most appealing name for a city.

So why the heck did I drive all the way to Leadville?  For only one reason:  At 10,152’, Leadville, Colorado is the highest city in America.  After visiting the lowest city in the U.S. in May – Calipatria, California, at an elevation of 180 feet below sea level – I had to go to Leadville and check it out because, well, I’m the Extreme Geographer.  Leadville is also the home of the highest airfield in America, which I also wanted to visited, having visited the lowest airfield, at Death Valley, a month earlier.

Like so many other mining towns in Colorado, Leadville’s economy was based primarily on a single mine – and boy, was it a big one.  In fact, back in the late 1800’s, the Matchless Mine was one of the largest silver mines in Colorado and made its owner, Horace Tabor, a household name in Colorado.  Then the suddenly-rich Horace left his middle-aged wife and married a pretty young thing named Baby Doe and, well, you can probably figure out the rest.  It’s the same thing that usually happens whenever a middle-aged guy leaves his wife for a pretty young thing:  turmoil, despair and eventual ruin.  But if it makes you feel any better (it does me), Horace’s wife, Augusta, had the last laugh because she died a millionaire, due mostly to her intelligence and industriousness, and no thanks to ol’ Horace. 

Anyway, I’d heard of the Matchless Mine for decades but had never seen it, so after spending a half-hour in downtown Leadville, I drove a few miles east of town and took a self-guided tour of the mine.  Long after the Matchless had played out, in the early 1900’s, and after Horace had died, Baby Doe continued to live there as an increasingly reclusive hermit (kinda like me) until one cold day in 1935, she was found frozen to death on the floor. 

The cabin’s still there and I’ve posted a picture of it.  But here’s a lesson to all the guys:  don’t fall for any Baby Does out there because it probably won’t end well.  ‘Nuff said.

Leadville, Colorado


In Search of Gordon's Bulldozer

A week after my foray to Leadville, on a Sunday morning, I drove up the Lake Fork River towards Cinnamon Pass, at the top of which my BLM sign from 1986 stating "Cinnamon Pass, Elev. 12,640" still proudly stands.  Well, let me clarify:  apparently the sign POST, which I sunk with 200 pounds of Quikrete concrete, is still there.  The sign itself, however, was stolen a while back and has since been replaced by another “Cinnamon Pass” BLM sign that, in my biased opinion, isn’t nearly as nice.  But my destination that day was just short of Cinnamon Pass at a place called American Basin which, hands down, is one of the most beautiful alpine valleys in America. 

Above:  From the Williams Creek campground, I headed up the Lake Fork river to American Basin.  On the way, I searched for an old bulldozer at Cooper Creek but with no luck.

On my way up to American Basin that beautiful morning, I stopped at the Silver Creek trailhead, which is notable for being the starting point for trails that lead to not one but TWO 14,000-foot peaks:  Redcloud Peak (14,035’) and Sunshine Peak (14,001’).  This was my patrol area back in the 1980s, so I hiked up to each peak at least once each summer. 

By the way, Sunshine Peak, at 14,001 feet in elevation, has the distinction of being the lowest fourteen-thousand foot peak (or "14-er" as they say) in America, and perhaps the world.  Of course, being the Extreme Geographer, that geographic / geologic oddity has always appealed to me.  In fact, I often mused, back when I was a ranger, about taking a shovel up to Sunshine Peak some day and lopping off the first few feet, thus making it a 13-er.  But those folks who like to “bag" 14-ers, as they say, wouldn’t have understood my sense of humor.  They're a serious bunch and don’t joke about such things.  Anyway, here’s a panorama picture of the Silver Creek trailhead. 

After leaving Silver Creek around 10 a.m., I continued on the road to American Basin, slowly climbing in elevation.  I stopped a half-mile later at a place called Cooper Creek, where I took another panorama photo. 

Back when I worked here in the 1980’s, Cooper Creek was the hangout of a guy named Gordon Smith, who was a real, let’s say, character.  Gordon liked to carry a .45 revolver and threaten anyone who he didn’t care for, and I know from personal experience that he was a mercurial fellow who was best avoided.  But Gordon had a small piece of land way up Cooper Creek that was surrounded by a BLM Wilderness Study Area.  Gordon also had a D-8 (i.e., extremely big) bulldozer, so he tried to build a road through the BLM WSA, which wasn’t a good idea.  In fact, one day after he’d caused a lot of commotion, my mission was to stake out Gordon and report any activity, so there I sat all day at Cooper Creek under a spruce tree, watching him fire up his bulldozer.  Gordon was arrested several years ago for trying to run over a BLM ranger (not me) and he died in prison. 

Above:  Gordon Smith's D-8 Caterpiller bulldozer at the Cooper Creek trailhead during my BLM ranger days, in July 1987.

But as far as I knew, his bulldozer, the bulldozer that caused me such consternation back in the 1980s, was still up there in the meadow by Cooper Creek.  I was determined to see it again, just for old time’s sake if nothing else, like seeing an old acquaintance that you’d really rather not.  So I got out my daypack and hiked up the Cooper Creek trail with my eyes peeled while searching for it.  The last time I saw Gordon’s bulldozer was in 1995 and I vaguely remembered where it was, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it.  I was dumbfounded.  There was no way, I figured, that anyone could’ve started it up again and moved it, and it was too heavy to be lifted out, so I was totally and completely bewildered:  What happened to Gordon’s bulldozer??

I got the answer a few weeks later at a small cafe in Gunnison.  I met up there one morning with Sally, who took over my ranger job in 1989 and who continued to work in the Lake City / BLM area for many more years until recently retiring.  Sally told me that there was a story in the Lake City newspaper several years ago about the BLM's desire to remove Gordon’s D-8 bulldozer from the pristine Wilderness Study Area.  Apparently a fellow who was the president of an antique bulldozer society (is there actually such a thing?) from someplace back east got wind of it.  He contacted the BLM and he and his buddies traveled out to Lake City.  Even though the dozer had been sitting in the meadow rusting for at least 15 years, they were somehow able to start it up.  They moved it down to the road, then put it on a flatbed truck and hauled it back east with them.  As Sally told me this bizarre story, my eyes opened wide and my jaw started to drop, finally hitting the floor of the cafe with a resounding "thud."  And so Gordon’s dozer is no more – and that’s a good thing.

After returning to my truck from my fruitless hike up Cooper Creek, I finally reached American Basin around 2 p.m. and walked up the valley.  It’s a beautiful place and I posted a panorama photo so you can see for yourself.  I think you’ll agree that it was well worth the trip.  And in a few more weeks, in early July, the entire valley would be covered with wildflowers. 

I headed back to Lake City and when I got back to my campsite at Williams Creek, I celebrated by doing what I always do when I celebrate something momentous:  I grilled up some brats.  Well actually, I do that when I don't celebrate anything, too.  It had been a great trip despite not seeing Gordon's rusty bulldozer.

A Trip to American Basin


The Lake City Fourth

The biggest event in Lake City for the entire year is the Fourth of July celebration.  People come literally from thousands of miles away just to be in Lake City during the Fourth.  I know, because I’ve done it myself.  Now, back in the 1980s, I loved the Fourth in Lake City and it’s still pretty much the same now – but with about 10 times as many people.  First there’s the parade in the morning that travels down Gunnison Avenue and then up Silver Street.  That’s followed by Games in the Park, and in the evening there’s a street dance and then a fireworks show closes the evening.  It’s been the same lineup for over 30 years, but why mess with a good thing? 

Being out at the campground, I wanted to drive into Lake City in the morning well before the parade started so I could take lots of pictures of the folks prepping for the parade.  I misread the starting time, though, and thinking the parade started at 11 a.m., I drove into Lake City at 10:30.  Well, the parade had actually started at 10 a.m., not 11 a.m., so as I approached Lake City, I saw a giant mob of people on Gunnison Avenue along with lots of floats and jeeps decked out in red-white-and-blue.  Ooops, said I. The parade was almost over, but not to fear. 

I parked my truck, grabbed my camera, and jogged up to the tail end of the parade – then I kept jogging for the next 20 minutes, passing mobs of folks sitting in chairs on the road and dodging tons of candy that the participants were throwing to the spectators.  I got a few dirty looks from Dads who thought I was trying to grab the candy from their kids (really I’m not, I just want to take some pictures), but most folks watching the parade were mellow and didn’t let my temporary intrusion bother their experience.  I finally caught up to the front of the parade and began snapping frantically – in fact, the more than 750 pictures I shot that day is close to a personal best.

After the parade, it was Games in the Park, just like in the 1980s but with tons more folks.  But by 2 p.m., the skies started to darken so I hightailed it back to my truck and returned to Williams Creek.  It had been a great day, though.  The Fourth of July in Lake City always is.

Fourth of July in Lake City




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