Mining for meaning
As far as historical landmarks go, H.A.W. Tabor’s Matchless Mine has it all.- Located on East 7th Street in Leadville, it offers a window into times gone by, an air of mystery (the stuff of legend) and perhaps a lesson for the future.
The history of the Matchless Mine could well be the story of Leadville itself.- Each sprang quickly from the rocky Colorado soil. Each saw an unprecedented amount of growth in just a few short years, but the decline of both the mine and one of the richest boomtowns in history would prove almost as sudden as their ascents.
Leadville was not officially founded until 1878, two years after William H. Stevens and Alvinius Wood announced their silver-laden carbonate of lead discovery. Similarly, a claim was staked for the Matchless Mine that same year.
As the rough-and-tumble boomtown grew in leaps and bounds so did the mine. Leadville saw its population increase nearly five-fold in the years between 1878 and 1880. Those few short years were also an unparalleled coming-out period for the Matchless.
Its claim staked in 1878, H.A.W. Tabor purchased the mine in 1879 for $117,000. Already a powerful partner in many area mining interests, he wished to purchase a mine of his own. Many at the time believed it to be, at most, a huge risk, and, at the least, a poor business decision. In fact, by the end of 1879, the Matchless Mine was not yet producing over five tons of ore per day.
But a strike in November of 1880 would forever reinforce Tabor’s public image as an uncanny investor with a silver touch. Estimates gleaned from a sample pulled from the mine that winter revealed approximately $1,600 worth of silver per ton of ore. Operations immediately stepped up and the mine began living up to its name.
But when the price of silver fell through the floor thanks to its de-monetization by Congress in 1893, Leadville and its mines were crushed.- They held on for dear life, finding markets for less lucrative products like fluxing iron, but things were never to be the same. Population estimates for Leadville in its prime ranged from 30,000 to 60,000 residents. By 1900, it had dipped below 15,000; by 1910, below 10,000.-
Even a mine they called Matchless could not escape. After the death of H.A.W. Tabor in 1899 there was much confusion as to its ownership. His widow, “Baby Doe” Tabor, tried desperately to hold on, but to no avail.
The eventual owners of the mine and Tabor finally struck a deal allowing her to live in a cabin on the property. The mine itself operated intermittently for the next 25 years or so, never producing a noticeable profit.
“Baby Doe” Tabor, for her part, hung on to her belief that the Matchless would once again produce a bounty, bringing back her glorious years as a Silver Queen, but in 1935, her frozen body was discovered in the cabin at the mine. Thirty-six years after the death of her husband and 42 years after the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, “Baby Doe” Tabor finally stopped believing.
Life in Leadville and at the individual mines at the time presented challenges almost unheard of today. Inadequate shelter from the harsh climate, unsafe working environments, unhealthy living conditions and a certain amount of Western lawlessness all combined to make every day a test of stamina and will.
Many workers who’d heard of Leadville’s boon came as quickly as they could, across many a mile, only to find a saturated job market. Many prospectors, miners and investors threw down everything they had for a chance at Leadville’s treasure, only to suffer incredible failure.
The productivity of mines like the Matchless, which drove Leadville through its heyday and beyond, is a testament to the courage and hard work of the people who refused to let them fail – as is the legacy of Leadville itself.
The similarity in the fates of Leadville and one of its most productive mines should come as no surprise, but, more intriguing, is how they remain connected.-
The Matchless Mine has reaped a measure of immortality from its legend and Leadville owes much of its current tourist trade to all the stories surrounding its rich and notorious history. The two continue to feed off each other, even after the source of their past grandeur has been depleted. And though mining is still a large part of the local economy, most folks who now come to Leadville aren’t looking for silver or gold.
The interwoven stories of Leadville and the Matchless Mine are intense reminders of the frontier spirit, the very same drive that defined a nation and kept it strong. From the laborers who risked their lives working the mines, to the investors who risked financial ruin, to the merchants and smelters who set up shop around them, all took tremendous risks.-