Another bit of America gone
No one wore black and there were no sad faces, for no one knew they were attending a funeral. On March 24 the governor and a host of local businessmen gathered at Leadville, Colo., to inaugurate a ''revitalization program.'' They announced that Leadville, one of the West's last authentic frontier mining towns , would be transformed heart and soul into a tourist town.
Silver, 6,000 tons of it in the 1880s, brought fame and fortune; Leadville became the best and worst of the mining frontier, a bustling, booming city of opera houses and whore houses, grand hotels and dismal slums, silver barons, and wandering bums.
The West had many similiar camps: Deadwood, Tombstone, and Virginia City; Colorado alone had Cripple Creek, Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, and Central City, names all familiar not because of history but because of their current chic tourism status. When their mines inevitably closed, they cashed in on their quaint architecture and desirable locations and mined the tourists. Today, their general stores and rough saloons have become stylish boutiques and seductive fern bars. All lure the tourists with their frontier heritage, then sell them a trash history as shallow and meaningless as the 2 o'clock staged shoot-out and as cheap as the plastic sheriff's badges that clutter the souvenir shops.
But Leadville's mines never died. Just as the surrounding Rockies isolated the city, the enduring mining economy insulated it from change. Leadville had no need to emulate the expected standards of contemporary suburbia, no reason to remake itself into a rosy-cheeked Alpine village. It was content with its rough roads, bleached timbers, and frontier ethics. Leadville's miners - 3,400 of them in 1981 - worked hard and played hard. The Harrison Avenue bars were for serious drinking and not infrequent fighting. There were no rock and bluegrass festivals , no think tanks, no enlightened flower children. The annual ''Boom Days'' summer festival was celebrated with mine-drilling contests and grueling burro races, events as rugged as the town itself. Leadville always retained that curious mixture of frontier qualities that today seems paradoxical - toughness and friendliness.
Leadville was never adulterated by the trends and fads that homogenized the rest of the nation. Its proud but weathered Victorian architecture continued to serve its originally intended purposes. Although Leadville welcomed visitors, it never sought them. There were no slick, quarter-page ads in the travel magazines , no ''Visit Leadville'' billboards cluttering the highways halfway to Chicago.
But, in 1982, the mines unexpectedly closed, thrusting Leadville unwillingly and unprepared into the harsh reality of the present. It stood alone, an atavism , naked and vulnerable. And the vultures of progress quickly gathered.
As most of the miners left town, the businessmen had little choice but to seek survival through change, but control quickly slipped from their grasp. An outside white-collar consultant was hired to direct the ''revitalization.'' An Atlanta development group quietly bought the heart of the old Victorian business district for conversion to shops and condominiums. Leadville always had an obvious natural tourism potential based solidly on Colorado's richest mining history and a spectacular mountain location (its 10,152-foot elevation makes it the highest incorporated city in North America). But even such mighty attributes were not enough to prevent Leadville from being polished, packaged, and presented to tourists as another ''frontier city.''
And therein lies the ultimate irony: Leadville needed no polishing and packaging. It was the real frontier all along, the last surviving remnant. Its problem was that it was too authentic. It was not in the popular image of the frontier as created by pay-your-admission Wild West Cities or the sanitized studio sets of television Westerns.
But the consultants and developers will transform the tough little town into another Central City or, if they are really successful, another Aspen. The bleached timbers will be replaced by plastic and asphalt, the honest grins of miners by the contrived smiles of shopowners. The historic Bank Annex Building where silver fortunes were once made and lost has already become the Mountain Oasis, a fern bar. And the 100-year-old Tabor Grand Hotel, first the domain of silver barons, then of countless transient miners, has been stripped, its furnishings auctioned, and will reopen as a restaurant and condominium.
Without its miners, the real Leadville could not have lasted anyway. It would have been too different, too unique, too individualistic; it would have offended , even threatened, the tourists from mainstream America. But we may all rest easy, for now there is nothing to fear. Leadville is being homogenized and made into a replica of those things with which we are all familiar and comfortable.
There will always be a Leadville, of course, and in the coming years more tourists than ever will see it. They'll browse through the cute Western shops, visit the sophisticated restaurants and really think they are touching the honest frontier. But they won't be, for the old Leadville - the real Leadville - was buried on March 24, 1983, another bit of America gone.