This Leadville, Colo., gem enjoys nationwide support.
It seems fitting the nation’s only federally chartered mining museum is in Leadville, Colorado. After all, by the end of the Civil War prospectors had extracted $5 million in gold from nearby California Gulch. A decade later, when carbonates proved rich in silver, more prospectors swarmed the area. The new silver deposits prompted the founding of Leadville in 1877 and set off a Colorado silver boom. Leadville gold and silver made millionaires by the ore load, including the Guggenheims; J.J. Brown and his famous “unsinkable” wife, Molly; and Colorado’s legendary H.A.W. Tabor, who met his young second wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt, in Leadville.
In April 1987 the small and struggling National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum moved into a 71,000-squarefoot brick Victorian building that since 1899 had served alternately as Leadville’s high school and junior high. Its board of directors then launched an impressive fund-raising campaign that garnered sponsorships from mining companies nationwide as well as donated and loaned exhibits, including mining specimens from the Smithsonian Institution.
Today the center operates on annual donations from the Homestake Mining Co. in Lead, S.D., the federal Economic Development Administration (an agency of the Department of Commerce) and Colorado’s Mineral Impact Assistance Program. Its hall of fame honors more than 175 of mining’s legendary figures with engraved photos and biographies, while its exhibit spaces showcase countless fabulous ore specimens.
For starters, the Crystal Room holds standout samples from the Smithsonian, including dazzling amethyst and quartz, while the Proctor Collection displays a vast array of gems and minerals. Eleven other rooms feature hundreds of spectacular specimens on loan from the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Anaconda Minerals Exploration Collection and the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO). For those intrigued by earthly things less shiny, a coal exhibit dramatizes both underground and surface mining.
The museum’s most popular exhibit is a life-size, realistic walk-through replica of a hard-rock mine. Visitors stroll past ore cars on a narrow-gauge track, taking in demonstrations of hand steels, hammers and mechanical drills that illustrate the development of mining technology.
That mine leads to a gold mine, actually the Gold Rush Room, with specimens and artifacts from 17 states that had gold rushes of varying degrees. Perhaps the most eye-catching specimen is a 23- ounce chunk of native Colorado gold. Part of the Bowman Collection, it was retrieved from Leadville’s own Little Jonny Mine, managed by J.J. Brown. Another display features unique ore specimens donated by the New York Mining Club. The Prospector’s Cave has another replica mine with an actual wall of quartz from the Idarado Mine near Telluride, Colo.
The history of the mining industry gets full attention in other exhibits, including interactive displays geared to young visitors. ASARCO provided a fine collection of bullion scales, while the Peschel Collection centers on an array of ceremonial axes used by German miners between the 12th and 19th centuries. Interspersed throughout the museum are 22 hand-carved and hand-painted dioramas that depict the early development of gold mining along Colorado’s Clear Creek, and six murals by artist Irving Hoffman portray historic moments.
A stunning larger-than-life bronze, The Singlejack Miner, greets visitors in the lobby, and it’s hard to miss artist Gary Prazen’s Anatomy of a Miner, a welded steel statue that represents the modern era of mining. Other works of art in the museum have a futuristic theme. Also on display is a moon rock specimen.
The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum is at 120 W. 9th St. in Leadville. For more information call 719-486-1229 or visit www.mininghalloffame.org.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.