Tuesday, July 19, 2005


I blew off my counting of loggers' nationalities on my last day in Denver last week for a trip to Leadville. It so happens that I have a friend who knows more about the history of Colorado than all but maybe 5 living people so that made it especially tempting. He wanted to take me up to Leadville, a place that I cannot recommend highly enough for a visit. That is, if you like seeing the incredible damage that mining causes and find historical mining landscapes fascinating. I find this so fascinating that I almost forgot the mountains that surrounded the town. Though I didn't forget the elevation given that Leadville is over 10,000 feet. Anyway, a few highlights.

Merlot Ponds--What is a Merlot Pond you ask? Why it's exactly what you would think it is. A pond of water that at the foot of a tailings pile that looks like merlot. Yes, that's right. It's red. Hmmm....red water. Very frightening stuff.

Wedding Cakes--By the late 80s and early 90s, the EPA was sick of dealing with Leadville. They had been trying to clean the place up for a long time and had faced a lot of local resistance, in large part because the EPA committed some really bad public relations blunders early in the process. So they decided that they would take old tailings piles and place them in more centralized locations but would be designed to look historic. Their plan--to put them in piles and cover them with a couple of different colors of rock to make them look "historic." In fact, they look absurd. This caused great consternation in Leadville as well as among historic preservationists. The EPA doesn't do this anymore.

Finn Town--Ah, the Finns. No one talks about the Finns when they talk about immigrant labor. But throughout the West at least, Finnish immigrants were used for the worst jobs. There were thousands in logging in the Pacific Northwest and a lot in Leadville too. They had their own settlement outside of town. Finns were seen by industrialists as among the hardest working immigrants and thus desirable. On the other hand, they were also known to be the worst radicals and the most given over to IWW sympathies. This did not endear them to industrialists. What was particularly interesting about Finn Town was not necessarily the old buildings but the sign that talked about the saunas they used after work. Just curious--what was in that water they used in the sauna. Bad stuff, but then again how much worse could it have been than they what the breathed in while at work?

Trophy Homes in Leadville?--One spur for the Leadville economy has been that it is the only place around where working-class people can afford to live. They work in other, high-priced communities, including Vail I think. But the prices of homes are rising in Leadville too as people start building there because they can have their mountain views cheaper than Aspen. The deep problems of pricing working-class people out of Leadville is part of a process repeated throughout the West but it's not really the point here. What I am interested in with this case is this--why in the hell would you build a trophy home on top of a tailings pile? Are people so blinded by their mountain views that they don't care about deeply polluted water or their children playing on toxic waste? I guess so.

In a lot of ways, Leadville is like a slightly less depressing version of Butte. It's a rundown, heavily polluted mining community. There's no giant pit in the center of town like in Butte, which helps. They have started moving over to a tourist-based economy, something still resisted in Butte. But even in Leadville it seems to be very grudgingly and there's no doubt that many in the community would prefer to turn back to mining, something perhaps like if the molybdenum prices keep rising and MolyCorp reopens the Climax Mine. The Climax Mine was interesting in its own right as it is a large, barren, and orange wasteland. But hey, there's a sign next to it talking about how wildlife is coming back and how soon it will look like nothing's happened there. Somehow I don't believe this to be true.

One note on the drive to and from Leadville, which took us through the mountains and then down through South Park and back to Denver. Not to be trite, but Colorado is a stunningly beautiful place.