Museum Tourist: National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

About a year ago, a friend and I stopped by Leadville on the way back to Denver from a wedding in the western part of Colorado.

We chose Leadville in part because it’s at 10,152 feet and it’s not every day you get to be at that elevation. (Fun fact: That’s not enough air. We slept badly.) The other reason for choosing Leadville was because we were both really excited about visiting the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.

Leadville was a mining boom town. It was founded on gold, in the 1860s. That ran out. Then silver boomed. In 1880, more than 30,000 people lived there, frequenting its saloons and boarding houses. A few people got rich off silver; investor Horace Tabor spent some of his bazillions on building an opera house.

The bust followed pretty soon after the boom. The town’s population is less than 3,000 now, and the main industry is tourism. (Although they do also boast the oldest fish hatchery west of the Mississippi.)

One of the things I expect to see in any natural history museum is boxes of rocks, or what the curators might call mineral collections in glass cases. Each chunk of mineral has a little label telling what it is and where it came from.

What I learn from that is: That rock has a name. And it came from a place. I assume there are people for whom this information has some meaning. Heck, I appreciate the pure aesthetic experience of the pretty rocks. But, as a non-mineral-expert, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning here.

boxes of rocks

Look, Myrtle, it’s rocks! In boxes!

That said, I like when museums have boxes of rocks. They remind me of a 19th-century gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities.

The mining museum also has some very educational boxes of rocks. For example, the one on Mining and Computers highlighted minerals that are mined so they can be used in electronic devices. Like silica sand that ends up in microchips, or the bauxite that gives us aluminum, or cassiterite, a source of tin. That’s a nice way to relate rocks to my life.

Leadville’s economy went downhill fast after 1893. In 1895, they took a shot at the tourist industry by building an ice palace.

 A model of the Ice Palace, built in 1895 in an early bid for the tourist trade.

A model of the Ice Palace, built in 1895 in an early bid for the tourist trade.

Unfortunately, the ice palace didn’t work out as an economic stimulus plan–a lot of people made a day trip of it, rather than taking advantage of Leadville’s fine hotels, and brought their lunches. Cheapskates. It was also one of the warmest winters ever recorded in Leadville, and the palace had to be closed at the end of March 1896. Oops. This ice palace shares a room with a huge, delightful model train set, with banks and bars and a whole underground section of a mine, plus a standalone model of Tabor’s Matchless Mine.

An even sweeter model was in a hallway in the second building. It was a castle, built from cardboard, wood, and plastic and completely coated in pretty minerals collected by a mine worker. He picked them up at work and on hikes. I didn’t learn a lot about minerals from looking at it. But I feel like I learned a lot about mine worker Don Miller. He wrote on the label, “This is a three-dimensional diary of my life and times during a period of my life and certainly means more to me than it ever will to anyone else.”

 This castle's creator named it "Patience."

This castle’s creator named it “Patience.”

The museum is sprawling and uneven, but, for me, the most interesting things were what I learned about mining life. How mining products figure into my daily life, how Leadville tried to cope with the loss of mining, how Don Miller deployed his rock collection.

I guess I do care about mining a little more than I did before I went to the museum. (But I still don’t know what to do with boxes of rocks.)

Photos: me

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