Gunslingers, Poets and Millionaires: 1880s Leadville

This month I have a guest on my blog, Ann Parker, award-winning author
of the Silver Rush historical mysteries.  The fourth book in the series, Mercury’s Rise, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.

A few months ago Ann and I sat down to lunch in NYC where she held me spellbound with tales of the Great and Good–or the Not So Good–who passed through Leadville, Colorado, center of America’s silver mining industry back in the 1800s.  I’m sure you’ll be equally fascinated with what she has to say.

Thank you, Andrea! As we know, Leadville is a long way from New York City, but the two places have some interesting connections. Back in the Silver Rush heyday from late 1879 through the 1880s, many folks came to Leadville for one reason or another, and many from the East Coast. Among them, are some names familiar even to this day.

For instance, the Guggenheims. Did you know that their fortune was founded in Leadville? From his then-home in Philadelphia, Meyer Guggenheim lent a helping hand in 1880 to an old friend, who had gone West many years earlier to make his fortune. To that end, Guggenheim bought a one-third interest in two Leadville mines: the A.Y. and the Minnie. The mines had been barely “holding their own” in terms of shipping enough ore to pay expenses. Soon after Guggenheim joined in, he took a quick trip to Leadville to examine the properties, and hired mining experts to see what they could do to increase the yield. The amount of ore removed from the mines increased to 50 tons a day, but it wasn’t until a fateful day in August that Dame Fortune smiled. Back once again in Philadelphia, Meyer Guggenheim received a telegram from his Leadville associate that stated: RICH STRIKE. FIFTEEN OUNCES SILVER. SIXTY PERCENT LEAD. For 50 tons of ore removed daily, this translates to $1,000 a day in silver alone! (In today’s dollars that $1,000 equates to $22,000. See As noted in the book The Guggenheims: A Family History, “The A.Y. and the Minnie would be the bedrock of the Guggenheim fortunes.”

Others came to Leadville, passing through or even staying for a while. For instance, Susan B. Anthony arrived in September 1877, stumping for women’s suffrage. She spoke to the miners in one of the saloons, at the time the largest buildings around and the only accomodations for public speakers. Alas, the Colorado Legislature voted down the bill in October 1877, even though the governor of the state stood by Miss Anthony in Leadville and spoke up in favor of suffrage.

The James brothers—Frank and Jesse both—wandered through town and even staked a claim, although it appears they didn’t hang around for long. Leadville’s Carbonate Weekly Chronicle, September 4, 1880, noted, “It is currently reported that the notorious James brothers are now and have been for some weeks ostensibly engaged in working a mining claim in the near vicinity of Leadville.”

Doc Holliday came through a number of times in the early 1880s. He even settled for a while in 1883–84 and dealt faro in the Monarch Saloon (located not far from the fictional Silver Queen Saloon of my series), and ended up shooting and killing a Constable Kelly. Others of Holliday’s acquaintance that chanced through Leadville at various times included Bat Masterson (a personage I gleefully used in Silver Lies) and Wyatt Earp.

Gunslingers aside, famous visitors to “Cloud City” included politicians and poets, pundits, and entertainers. Former President Ulysses S. Grant came through on a five-day visit in July 1880 (a visit which plays a prominent role in both Iron Ties and Leaden Skies), and writer/poet Oscar Wilde gave a lecture at Leadville’s Tabor Opera House in 1882. Wilde’s visit was well covered in the news of the day. The Leadville Herald Democrat ran an article titled alliteratively “OSCAR DEAR—Wilde Wrestles Wildly With the Art Decorative in this Mountain Wilderness.”

Later, in Wilde’s book Impressions of America, he said the following about his trip to Leadville:

“. . . I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me. They are miners—men working in metals, so I lectured to them on the Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry, “Who shot him?” They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice:—

Please do not Shoot the PIANIST

He is doing His Best

The mortality among pianists in that place is marvelous. Then they asked me to supper, and having accepted, I had to descend a mine in a rickety bucket in which it was impossible to be graceful. Having got into the heart of the mountain I had supper, the first course being whisky, the second whisky and the third whisky….”

This is just a sample of some of the “rich and/or famous” who once strolled along Leadville’s boardwalks. If you are lucky enough to go there someday, you can walk on the boards yourself, listen to echoes of long ago, and perhaps glimpse a ghost or two while you take in views of mountain scenery that haven’t changed much these past 150 years. As Walt Whitman said of a day’s journey from Denver to Leadville and back through Platte Canyon:

“Talk as you like, a typical Rocky Mountain canon, or a limitless sea-like stretch of the great Kansas or Colorado plains, under favoring circumstances, tallies, perhaps expresses, certainly awakes, those grandest and subtlest element-emotions in the human soul, that all the marble temples and sculptures from Phidias to Thorwaldsen—all paintings, poems, reminiscences, or even music, probably never can.”


Ann’s award-winning books, including her latest, Mercury’s Rise, can be found at independent bookstores (, Barnes and Noble (, amazon (, and other venues.


Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! Winner will be announced later this week. To see the rest of Ann’s blog tour, check out her Appearances page on her website (

The winner of Ann’s Silver Rush Mystery Prize is Kilian Metcalfe.  Thanks to everyone who left a comment!

22 responses to “Gunslingers, Poets and Millionaires: 1880s Leadville

  1. Hey, I’m here. I’ve read the book and it’s a big thumbs up from me! 🙂


  2. What a dangerous place to take up piano playing. Might as well be a gunslinger as a piano player I guess back then.


  3. Hello Dani! 😀
    Thanks for the thumbs up! Just to think… I’ll be in Leadville again in just a couple of weeks! Just wish it was more than a quick visit, but I’ll take what I can get. 🙂
    Thanks for commenting!


  4. Hello Kathy!
    Leadville was a rockin’ place back when…. One young lawyer from Philadelphia wrote home to his mother, saying: “A murderer is safer in Leadville than a Horsethief.”
    Thanks for commenting! 🙂


  5. I think that people forget that Colorado and the mining towns were visited by people most would never think of being there. Helen visited Georgetown and even went down in one of the mines. What history we can learn if we open the books and our minds.


    • Helen Hunt Jackson visited Leadville as well! There’s a great passage in the Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote where MHF recalls chatting over dinner and Helen remarks about Leadville: “Grass would not grow there and cats could not live.”


  6. One more luminary I should mention, because he certainly was a fascinating character, and that is Jefferson Randolph Smith (aka “Soapy” Smith). Soapy Smith arrived in Leadville in the mid-1880s, and with a confederate set up business on the corner of Harrison Avenue (the main street of town) and Third Street. They started with the classic shell game, and moved on to a new “con” that earned Soapy his sobriquet. Basically, they wrapped n occasional $100 bill around a bar of soap, mixed it in with dozens of ordinary bars. Soapy would play the part of a innocent buyer, purchase the special bar of soap, unwrap it, and find the money. You can imagine how fast those bars of soap sold after that! Soapy skeedaddled from Leadville and continued to practice his trade in Creede and, later, Alaska. Find out more about Mr. Smith here:


  7. Thank you Ann for that addition of my great-grandfather, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. My book, ALIAS SOAPY SMITH: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL has a photograph of Soapy in Leadville in 1880. Ex-President Grant is riding his horse in the background but he is too fuzzy to see.
    Jeff Smith


  8. Having my family from Leadville in the early days, I so enjoy reading Anne’s books. Its great fun to pretend they are right around the corner…..


  9. Hello Jeff,
    You’re welcome! Soapy is a fascinating character, in and of himself. And I do believe I have a copy of your book in my office here… if I don’t, I should get one! 🙂


  10. Hello Dianne!
    Thank you so much! 😀 Isn’t it great that we can “still pretend,” even though we are no longer children? Keeping the imagination limber is important, all through life, and reading fiction is one of the best exercises! It would be a sad world without books and stories…


  11. Leadville seems to have been quite an attraction. Jenny Lind and Harry Houdini also appeared there, though how anyone could breathe, much less sing at that altitude is beyond me. I was driving through the town and stopped for gas and nearly passed out just walking a short distance. I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose right now, an excellent novel set partly in Leadville. It was a violent and bloody town in its heyday.


  12. Hello Kilian!
    Oh yes, that famous thin air… 🙂 I hadn’t thought about the problems it must have introduced for singers and the like. And thank you for adding two more “names of fame” to the roll of those who visited Leadville! “Angle of Repose” is a fascinating work of fiction. If you want to read the words of the woman on which the book was loosely (very loosely) based, see if you can find a copy of “A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote.” It makes for a very interesting companion read to “Angle”!


    • I don’t buy many books now that I have my Kindle, but that is one I added to my library. I love Stegner and was fascinated by Foote. I visit the Huntington Library/Museums/Gardens every chance I get, and I know they have her drawings. If they are ever on display, I’m going to make sure to see them.


  13. Fascinating history. Wish I had known about on my long ago trip to Colorado.


  14. Hi Liz!
    … Guess you’ll just have to take another trip sometime! 🙂


  15. I was there in the 60s (1960s) Enjoyed visiting the Opera House and a woman who knew Baby Doe Tabor and imagining the town as it once was. I suppose if dessert was offered after those courses of whiskey in the mine, it was also whiskey. Enjoyed this post. Do you suppose the James brothers gave up mining because their other “job” was easier and more lucrative?


  16. Hi Eunice! I wonder if that woman was Evelyn Furman? She *saved* the Opera House from destruction… quite a woman in and of herself. As for the James brothers, I remember seeing a newspaper comment that the feeling was they saw “greener pastures” elsewhere, and moved on, when they didn’t strike silver. 🙂


  17. I loved Mercury’s Rise and look forward to not only the next book in the series, Ann, but to visiting Leadville.


  18. Hello Jean… So you are going to visit Leadville?? YAY! When? 🙂


  19. Andi – Thanks so much for hosting me on this stop on my virtual tour for MERCURY’S RISE. It’s been fun reading and responding to the comments … like a virtual party! 🙂 Thanks again!


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