USAmerican Letter

US letter: High in the Rockies, locals are priced out by second-home buyers

From Irish to Mexicans, Leadville in the Rocky Mountains has history of people arriving from outside

If you closed your eyes to the cars and the traffic lights, it would be very easy to imagine horse-drawn covered wagons making their way down the main street of Leadville.

For a visitor, Leadville, Colorado still has the outline appearance and feel of what it was originally; a historic mining town in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by soaring peaks.

The main street is extremely wide. Locals say the snow that can fall in this part of the world from November until May can be piled up in the centre to allow vehicles to get through.

Leadville stands at a higher elevation than any other city in North America. It is over 10,000 ft (3,000m) above sea level.


It is about 100 miles (160km) west of Denver — a drive that is absolutely stunning in its beauty as it traverses mountain passes between high ridges in the Rockies surrounded by thick forests and rivers.

It is also not a drive for the faint-hearted, with some extraordinarily steep gradients. In parts there are road markings highlighting areas to allow “runaway trucks” to safely slow down off the main road.

The purpose of the visit to Leadville was to trace the history of the thousands of Irish who headed to the area about 140 years ago to mine silver. Prior to the coming of the railway, getting to the town and its nearby mines involved wagon trains over 13,000-foot mountains.

Originally gold had been discovered in the area, but by the late 1870s it was the site of one of the biggest “silver rushes” in US history.

The town grew rapidly to about 35,000 people and in the wake of the miners came the inevitable drinking emporiums, gambling dens and brothels.

The Catholic Church also had a big presence. Irish priest Fr Henry Robinson built a very fine stone church in the town as early as 1879. Local records say he visited all the mines to collect contributions towards the $40,000 cost of the church and rectory. It is said that most Catholic miners contributed a day’s wages -$2 to $3 for a 10-hour shift — to the building fund.

Within a decade or so the price of silver crashed and the fortunes of Leadville as well as its population declined.

Most of the Irish moved on but many remained.

Teacher Kathleen Fitzsimmons, whose family have lived in the area for generations, told The Irish Times that September 17th was always a big day in the town, with a parade.

It was considered halfway to St Patrick’s Day and the weather was generally better than in mid-March to celebrate Irish heritage.

In more recent years Leadville has seen the arrival of a new groups of people.

Some of these have come from Mexico and worked in the high-end hotels and ski resorts around the nearby towns of Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge.

All of these areas themselves would be far too pricey for regular workers to afford to live. Leadville, on the other hand, offered accommodation that was reasonable.

However, in recent times, that appears to be changing.

Last month the Colorado Sun newspaper in Denver reported that the mountain town had been flooded by outsiders during the Covid-19 pandemic who had “bought second homes to work remotely for the summer, drove up property taxes and the cost of breakfast burritos, and pinched out the workers who commute ‘over the hill’ to clean hotels in Vail and Frisco”.

It added: “The coronavirus pandemic ... shoved Leadville and Lake County full speed into the kind of vacation-rental economy that’s now common in Colorado’s high country. While second homes in the county sit vacant or are listed as short-term rentals, a housing shortage has doubled or even tripled home prices. Half of all home sales in 2020 and 2021 were to second-home owners. Some restaurants have had to close a couple of days a week because they can’t find workers who can afford to live there.”

The arrival of people from outside over recent years has also had an impact on the politics of the state as a whole, James Walsh of the department of political science at the University of Colorado, Denver told The Irish Times.

From what was a ruby red republican state, Colorado has changed over the last couple of decades and now has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators.

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 13 points in Colorado in 2020. However some polls have suggested that a key election for a senate seat in the state in November could see the Republican candidate run his Democrat opponent very close.

Joe O’Dea, who is running for the Republican Party, does not buy into Trump’s story that the election was stolen. He accepts that Biden won the White House.

He is campaigning on a more moderate platform than many of his party colleagues elsewhere. In his first ad he did not mention his republican affiliation.

Depending on the outcome in November, O’Dea’s performance may tell a tale on whether it can prove electorally beneficial to be less politically extreme.