Silver Dollar Sidewalks & Stagecoaches
Leadville’s History at Your Feet
If you have ever walked historic Harrison Avenue your gaze is likely to turn upwards toward the lofty Victorians that grace Leadville’s primary thoroughfare. However, for this tale, readers are invited to cast their eyes down to the cracks and crevices, to the bricks and mortar that pave one of America’s highest sidewalks. As one of Colorado’s most notorious main streets, each corner and intersection of Harrison seems to have its own tale to tell.
However, sidewalk strollers crossing by at 315 Harrison Avenue, will notice that the sound of their gait changes in tone, as footsteps transition from brick pavers to a historic wooden sidewalk in front of one of Leadville’s most famous entertainment establishments: The Silver Dollar Saloon. This week, those weather-worn boards were restored and replaced with some freshly-stained, pine-beetle planks. Work crews should be wrapping up the work soon, with guests being able to walk it out for themselves soon enough with a visit to the popular historic saloon. Until then, here’s the story about why – and how – the legendary watering-hole maintained its historic sidewalk – enjoy!
It was the late 1980s and Leadville was experiencing the beginning of its last economic bust cycle after the Climax Mine had ceased production, scattering the local workforce to the wind. Businesses that had seen the sweet milk-and-honey days were now struggling. But ever the “unsinkable” Leadville, local efforts were put into motion to spruce up the downtown corridor. It became known as the “paver project.” And as usual, the ultimate cost for the idea would burden main street businesses, requiring them to pay for a section of new brick pavers which would be installed in front of their buildings.
Everywhere that is, except one place. Yes, there is one Harrison Avenue entryway that is not lined by the criss-cross pattern of red-brick pavers. And it’s here – at the door of Leadville’s legendary Silver Dollar Saloon – where the story begins.
Now in full disclosure, this story was relayed by Spook, a born-and-raised old-timer who still hangs out at the local watering holes, most notably, the Dollar and the Pastime. Spook’s as good as it gets when it comes to burning questions like, “Why is the sidewalk in front of the Dollar the only one that doesn’t have the pavers?”
This tale should be part of any good walking tour of the city, as it’s here on this stretch of pedestrian pathway that a small-town saloon owner won out, thanks in part to some good Irish whiskey. After all, three thousand dollars was a lot of money to cough-up for some bricks, and Silver Dollar owner Donnie McMahon wasn’t about to pay it. Plus, he didn’t like the pavers, much less some city official telling him what he could and couldn’t do with his business. And while the idea – and the price tag – may not have been completely popular among other Harrison Avenue businesses owners, most acquiesced if for no other reason that they weren’t in the mood to fight city hall.
But McMahon was different. Often referred to as one of the strongest-willed, kindest-hearted, son-of-a-bitches you’ll ever meet, the stories from the time he owned the iconic bar from 1963 until he passed away in 1982 are legendary. Those were some over-the-top years for Leadville, with the Climax Mine running three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cash registers were ringing and there were some hard-and-fast times being lived in Leadville. But eventually the gravy train pulled into the station and by 1980, America’s highest city had seen a significant economic shift as Climax’s bankroll dried up, with thousands losing their jobs overnight.
Purse strings were being pulled a bit tighter. Besides like most independent-minded mountain folks, McMahon didn’t like to be told what to do, especially by a bunch of city officials. So as the paver project plan began, another plan was put into motion.
“Well, you know old Donnie wasn’t a guy you told what to do,” explained Spook one day last summer during an “afternoon tea” session at the Pastime. “So he decided that they weren’t gonna do it in front of his place.”
McMahon’s plan was masterful in its simplicity by endearing the paver-project work crews with some good Irish whiskey and cute bartenders, as he carefully watched their work schedule, which started up at 9th Street and slowly marched its way down the west side of Harrison Avenue as the summer season pressed on.
“When he knew that they were going to be doing the sidewalk in front of the Dollar,” Spook continues with the tale, “he invites all of the local officials out for lunch at The Placer, and gets them all loaded.” (alas, The Placer, which was located south of Leadville in Granite, burned to the ground in 1994).
So while McMahon was entertaining the dignitaries with good food and cold beer, the other part of this plan was playing out on main street. To this day, it’s not really clear how he managed it, but somehow he had gained the crew’s loyalty and convinced them to jump his property, leaving the old wooden sidewalk in place as they continued down the avenue with their paver-brick-road.
Of course, by the time The Placer party got back into town and sobered up, the sidewalk crew was already down to 3rd Street and about to jump the avenue, continuing their work up the other side. There was no going back! It was a victory for the little guy and while there was lots of discussion about going back and installing the pavers in front of the Dollar, it never happened.
Today, it’s a nice reminder as you cross the threshold into Leadville’s legendary saloon, hearing the softening of your footsteps as they transition from brick to wood. And on March 17 that sidewalk will be well-worn as the Irish celebrate their heritage with a parade at high noon. The procession marches down the avenue and – as tradition dictates – straight into the Silver Dollar Saloon. So, come and party with the Irish, and raise a glass to the Spirit of the American West.
The historic Silver Dollar Saloon is located at 315 Harrison Avenue in downtown Leadville. Check them out online at their website, or stop in and see Eric and the crew where the family tradition of good times carries on with a few new changes. Just listen to the sounds of your footsteps.
VIDEO Feature: St. Patrick’s Day Parade 2017
Meanwhile . . . Across The Avenue
The Truth in Disguise: A Leadville Stagecoach Story
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
When you live in a city with a history as rich as Leadville’s, sometimes it’s hard to separate the truth from tall tales. Maybe that’s because some of the things that actually happened here are so unbelievable. Or it could be that events recounted at the local pub acquire more artistic details with every pint.
This is one of those stories, told to me by an old-timer many years ago. Since it was first published in 1994, “The Stagecoach Story” has traveled around the world and been translated into several languages. After all, who can resist a genuine old west tale? Enjoy!
Some of Leadville’s more adventurous stories are derived from the short-lived stagecoach days. Although this mode of transportation is a classic symbol of the old west, its service quickly came to an end with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In Leadville, it had an even shorter life; but those three years (1877-1880) were packed with enough harrowing experiences to last a lifetime.
This story revolves around a tombstone that can be seen along the old stagecoach road off Hwy 24 south, just before the turnoff to Twin Lakes. You have to know just where to look . . . but here’s the story.
Although the stage lines carried passengers, the majority of their profit came from transporting mail and freight. The government gave out very profitable mail contracts, and competition among the stage lines was fierce. But so was the danger.
Stagecoach drivers in the old west were some tough hombres, with the job of getting their wagons to the station on time, and avoiding a myriad of hazards along the way. And in mining towns like Leadville, where fortunes were extracted from the ground and transported to Denver, robberies were a given.
In 1879, it is said that Sheriff Kirkham (somewhat verifiable, although it’s unclear if he was a deputy or perhaps even a city officer.) was facing a slew of stagecoach hold-ups along the route between Leadville and Buena Vista. It was the work of one bandit who seemed to have inside information on when the gold shipment would be on board, as that was the only time the robber struck. The sheriff came up with an idea to capture the crook, only this time he kept his plan to himself. He didn’t tell his deputies. He didn’t let his close friends or even let the bank in on his scheme. He didn’t even tell his wife!
On March 7, Sheriff Kirkman put his plan into action and dressing in disguise as a woman, boarded a stagecoach carrying some very precious cargo. Just as he suspected, when the stagecoach neared the Twin Lakes junction, the lone bandit appeared, ordering the gold to be handed over. The sheriff sprang into action, ripped off his disguise, and drew his weapon. “Halt!” Sheriff Kirkham yelled. “In the name of the law!”
The bandit was clearly surprised, and took off running, ignoring the lawman’s order. Sheriff Kirkham brought down that stagecoach robber with one bullet in the back. When he reached the body, he anxiously turned it over to discover the identity of the brazen bandit. It was his wife, dressed in disguise as a man!
Sheriff Kirkham could not bear the shame and embarrassment of his wife’s actions, so instead of bringing her back to town for a proper burial, he laid her to rest along the old stagecoach road. The epithet reads: “My Wife – Jane Kirkham – Died March 7, 1879 – Aged 38 years, 3 months, 7 days” The tombstone can still be seen from Highway 24 when you’re headed south, just before the Twin Lakes turnoff. In fact, it’s on the other side of the Arkansas River, directly across from the Highway 82 sign. But, if you head out to see the somber relic for yourself, please keep one eye on the road. Stagecoach travel was hazardous enough!