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The great altitude debate of 1994

Linda Balough

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

Opposite sides

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, then after a few years shifted to Leadville when it was discovered the silver layer first found on the Park County side of mounts Lincoln and Bross ran through the mountain to the Leadville area.

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

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), 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, 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.

As current Alma Mayor Bob Ensign relates, “That got our dander up.” He said 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 above sea level near the water tower as the official elevation of Alma.

All has remained peaceful between the two municipalities in the ensuing years. 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. Ensign recalled, “We weren’t cocky about it. We worked it out. Leadville can claim to be the highest city, and we are the highest town.”

While six-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 found a positive result that came 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 said with a smile.

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

Now, the Fairplay Burro Days race goes to the top of the pass and returns by the same route, while a few weeks later, a similar race is conducted from Leadville to the summit and back. The final leg of the burro triple crown is staged in Buena Vista under the same strict sanctioning of the National Burro Racing Ass. (the association’s official abbreviation).

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 (claimed to be the highest pass in North America – but that’s a different story).

Both towns were once boomtowns in the heyday of mining. Once silver, then Climax mine’s molybdenum 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 and Leadville just under 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, 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 that he or she could make a lot more money in some other location.

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 moved to Leadville from a much warmer small town in New Mexico. She now serves on the town council and wouldn’t consider leaving. “I wake up every day to just how beautiful it is here,” she said over lunch in one her favorite restaurants on Main Street.

Twenty-one year-old Tina Neidhardt, originally from Wisconsin, agreed as she cleared dishes once laden with bountiful sandwiches: “This is just the best; everyone is friendly here. I love it.”

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

At a recent town council meeting, 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.

After the meeting, Day explained why she chose Alma as her new home. “That it was so down to earth,” she said. “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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