Oro City: The Beginnings of Leadville

A once prosperous mining town, Oro City is not just a ghost town left behind by the Colorado gold rush. It is also an environmental hazard.

In early 1860, prospectors were exploring gulches and panning for gold deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. One prospector, Abe Lee, produced the lucky pan with gold in late April. They named the area California Gulch, supposedly because Abe Lee exclaimed, “I’ve just got California in this here pan!” By summer of the same year, California Gulch’s population had risen from the original party of miners to five thousand individuals, including women. California Gulch was seven miles long and a city grew around it, eventually concentrated toward the northern end of the Gulch. This town came to be known as Oro City and served as the precursor to the modern-day city of Leadville.

Oro City experienced waves of growth and decline as the seasons changed and as gold waned and silver and ore increased. In the beginning, the city had no official government and instead operated using the miners’ code and group meetings.  When Colorado became a territory the next year, Oro City became the county seat of Lake County and elections were held. The city’s population fluctuated seasonally, as winter conditions made mining difficult or impossible. Annual spring thaws repeatedly brought miners back until around 1865. By that point around five million dollars of gold had been extracted from three miles of the gulch, but gold-producing ore was exhausted. The population began to decline thereafter. A stamp mill named “The Printer Boy” was constructed in 1868 and helped partially sustain the local economy, but diminishing ore and continued technological troubles with requisite water pumping hindered business. The Printer Boy soon closed, along with other mills and smelters, and Oro City’s population moved elsewhere.

In 1873 or 1874, a new settlement emerged near Oro City named Slabtown. Slabtown later became Leadville when William H. Stevens and Albinus B. Wood began the “Oro Mining Ditch and Fluming Company.” Stevens and Wood bought up large areas in the California Gulch and began producing silver and lead. Mining became concentrated in the Gulch, and the population moved down the mountain.

Today, California Gulch is one of over 200 superfund sites in the state of Colorado, sites the EPA has specifically set aside for environmental recovery. For the most part, the 18 square miles of the superfund site is under control, although young children and expecting mothers should monitor their blood for heavy metals. Although the exposure is under control, the EPA will need to finish construction to seal up mines to create an area that is safe for the public to enter.

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