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A matter of altitude

Linda Balough

PLACER VALLEY – It was just about 10 years ago a notorious and humorous battle took place in the rarified atmosphere of the Mosquito Range, which divides Park and Lake counties.

Leadville, a town in Lake County that developed from the silver boom of the late 1870s, professed being, at 10,152 feet above sea level, the highest municipality in North America. The town fathers proudly posted signs at the city limits proclaiming the distinction.

Just over Mosquito Pass in Park County, however, lies the town of Alma, where the silver boom started a few years before shifting to Leadville. The silver layer first found on the Park County side of mounts Lincoln and Bross, it was discovered, ran all the way through the mountain to the Leadville area.

While silver fortunes and fame shifted toward Leadville, after the Sherman Act of 1893 produced a silver bust, the famous town suffered while Alma quietly shifted its attention to producing high-quality placer gold.

In Leadville’s shadow

While lying for years in the shadows of the fame brought to the “sister” city over the mountain – by such notorious souls as Baby Doe Tabor and Doc Holliday, no less – folks in Alma took umbrage at the notion Leadville’s proclamation declaring itself more elevated than any other place in the country.

People in the incorporated town of Alma pointed out its elevation is listed at 10,355 above sea level, making it the highest municipality in North America.

Undaunted, the Leadville City Council hunted up the highest point in the city and, in a meeting at the end of 1994, proclaimed the new-found elevation of 10,480 as “official.”

“That got our dander up,” says Alma’s mayor now, Bob Ensign.

Ensign says Alma town officials looked at the terrain, and while some of the streets climbed the side of the mountain even further, they established a recently surveyed point documented as 10,578 feet, near the water tower, as the official elevation of Alma.

After spring came and residents on both sides of the mountain were able to get out of their doors without climbing over snow mounds and were therefore a bit more congenial, a detente was reached, and it has remained peaceful between the two municipalities in the ensuing years. Ensign recalled,

“We weren’t cocky about it,” says Ensign. “We worked it out. Leadville can claim to be the highest city, and we are the highest town.”

While 6-foot lettering painted across a wall at the edge of town proclaims Leadville’s elevation as 10,200 feet, the sign along the highway offers a more modest claim of 10,152 feet.

Leadville Mayor Chet Gaede, a former military pilot who is no stranger to high altitudes, is willing to let the discourse remain as friendly banter over a cup of coffee.

Gaede even finds a positive result resulting from the schism between the two sides of the mountain.

“If it wasn’t for all the fuss, we’d still only have one burro race every summer,” he says.

“Triple crown of burro racing’

There is now a “triple crown of burro racing” in the High Country – where once there was only one race – in which runners start at Fairplay and run over Mosquito Pass to Leadville as they try to convince burros loaded with full miner’s packs that runners and burros should complete the run together.

The Fairplay Burro Days race goes to the top of the pass and returns by the same route; a few weeks later, a similar race is conducted from Leadville to the summit and back. The final leg of triple crown is staged in Buena Vista under the same, strict sanctioning of the National Burro Racing Association.

Share and share alike

Actually, the two highest municipalities in North America have a lot in common even though they are on opposite sides of Mosquito Pass – which some people believe to be the highest pass in North America, but that’s a different story.

Both towns were once boom towns in the heyday of mining. Once silver, then molybdenum from Climax, kept Leadville mining operations active. But the Climax Mine now lies idle, as do most of the tiny mining claims that carpet the higher slopes above the main part of town.

In Alma, only the Sweet Home rhodocrosite mine and some placer operations are still working, while other mines lay waiting for a rise in the price of gold to make mining lucrative again.

Both municipalities now primarily supply workers for the new Colorado gold – tourists – visiting attractions at Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and other Summit and Eagle County areas.

In the mid-1880s, Alma had 900 residents; Leadville had just almost 15,000. Now there are 235 people in Alma and about 3,500 in Leadville.

Though both towns endure a climate that seems to consist of fall, winter and spring – plus those three elusive summer days at the first of August – nearly every resident in each town is there because he or she has chosen that particular place to live. Nearly everyone acknowledges he or she could make a lot more money somewhere else.

“Why do you live here?’

Perhaps it is the cool, thin air that makes the almost-dreamy smiles appear every time the question is asked: “Why do you live here?”

Caroline Puntenney says she moved to Leadville from a much warmer, smaller town in New Mexico. She now serves on the Town Council and wouldn’t consider leaving, she says.

“I wake up every day to just how beautiful it is here,” she says.

“This is just the best; everyone is friendly here,” adds 21-year-old Tina Neidhardt, originally from Wisconsin. “I love it.”

The story is very similar over the craggy pass in Alma.

At a recent Town Council meeting there, Leslie Day brought up an unexpectedly high cost she’d encountered installing a sewer line up to her new house at one of the higher edges of town.

After discussing the dilemma, the council quickly came to a solution that would help her recover some of the cost as new properties hooked onto the line.

Day now explains why she chose Alma as her new home.

“That it was so down-to-Earth,” she says. “It reminded me of one of the old town meetings in New England; they listened and then made a decision. I really feel like I can be a part of the town, and I love it already.”


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