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Women’s History Month: The Women of Leadville

The Women of Leadville

Words by Dan Hughes


Baby Doe McCourt – Image from


Maybe it’s the rarified air of being at 10,152 feet, or the boom and bust and boom again nature of this mining and endurance sports town, but there’s something indomitable about Leadville. Founded in 1877, this settlement at the headwaters of the Arkansas River has had many strong pioneers in its history, but Leadville wouldn’t be where it is today without the women who helped to build it.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to shine a light on a few of them.

When gold was discovered at California Gulch in 1859, Augusta Tabor and her husband Horace were amongst the first to arrive. While Horace concerned himself with prospecting, Augusta became the first woman to operate a mine in Colorado and acted as an assayer, postmaster, banker, and more for the fledgling community. She, along with her husband Horace, would amass a fortune in silver mining, build the iconic Tabor Opera House in downtown Leadville, and in doing so garner Augusta the title of “First Lady of Leadville.”  

But Augusta’s life was not without a modicum of scandal, as Horace would eventually divorce her for a much younger woman…Baby Doe McCourt. The opulent lifestyle of Baby Doe and Horace lasted only a short while as Tabor lost his fortune with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. Before dying in 1899, Horace reportedly told Baby Doe to “hold on to the Matchless Mine…it’ll be worth a fortune when the price of silver comes back.” Baby Doe did indeed attempt to keep the Matchless, moving back to Leadville and staying at the mine until her death in 1935. Shunned by polite society for upsetting cultural norms of the day, she was nonetheless a legendary figure of Leadville’s history.

Mining continued to be the lifeblood of Leadville for much of its history until overnight it was gone. In the early 1980s, with the closure of the Climax Molybdenum mine just outside Leadville, suddenly the majority of the town’s population was unemployed, with miners losing their identities as well as their jobs.

Merilee Maupin

It was time for Leadville to come back from the brink again, and this time it came with the help of Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber. Maupin, who was running a travel agency at the time, had a front row seat to the local population traveling right out of town for other jobs. And when Chlouber called her asking for help with his “crazy idea” (a 100-mile running race) she readily agreed. “Kenneth had this idea that if people were going to run 100 miles, they were going to need to stay overnight. And putting people in hotel rooms was a key to us keeping the Leadville economy going and saving our schools and hospital.”

So in 1983 The Leadville Trail 100 (aka “The Race Across The Sky”) was born. With just 45 starters and only 10 finishers, the race was small initially but under the care and hard work of Maupin and Chlouber it began to grow. In an age that predated emails, cell phones, and the internet, Maupin would spend long hours peppering the state with flyers, snail mailing letters to prospective participants, and typing letters on carbon paper to spread the word (while Chlouber was serving in the Colorado State Legislature). Eventually word of the race reached the mainstream and attendance started to boom. The mountain bike race was added in 1994, along with other events throughout the year, each with a combined goal–give back to Leadville, and change lives doing it.  In 2010 the event was purchased by Life Time and in Maupin’s opinion “[Ken and I] gave these events running shoes and wheels…Life Time gave it wings. We wanted a better Leadville, a better Colorado, and we want our Leadville family to take what they’ve learned here home and make a better world for them”

It’s clear, from mining boom town to endurance sport bucket list destination, women have played a central role in the success of Leadville. Although Maupin, in her humble understating style, sees it slightly differently:

“It isn’t all about me. It isn’t all about Ken. It’s all about Leadville. There’s something about Leadville.”

That something is what drew current Leadville Race Series Race Director Tamira Jenlink to Leadville over a decade ago. First as a participant, then as a part of the organization, and now as Race Director, Jenlink understands not only the relationship of boom and bust, but also the balance of athletic achievement and community sustainability.

“We know that outdoor recreation events have been instrumental in the economic stability of the town, but we have to build a bridge to the community and listen to what their concerns are so that everyone can see the benefits” says Jenlink. Jenlink does this by holding regular town halls not only in Leadville, but in other communities like Twin Lakes that are also part of the race dynamic. 

“It’s really about the balance of having these events, and having them grow in a positive way. Without the support of this community, these events wouldn’t happen, and despite the challenges it’s amazing to see the community come together behind these races. Leadville is the magic.” 

Indeed it may be that there’s some alchemy afoot in the mountains surrounding the Cloud City. From the earliest days of mining precious metals out of the earth to the current paradigm of encouraging athletes to dig deep and overcome more than they think is possible, the future of Leadville is rooted in its strong history of capable women pioneers.

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