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Oct 12

The Life and Times of Charles Boettcher: The Leadville Years (Original Post Date 4/27/17)

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 7:45 PM by Laura Wilkins


Charles’ snap decision to hightail it up to Leadville changed the course of his life forever.  Already a successful businessman, he couldn’t resist the potential payoff of opening yet another hardware store to serve the miners scrambling to the mountains in search of silver.  When he first visited the “Cloud City”, it was already packed with prospectors waiting out the Spring thaw, despite the dearth of food, shelter and other creature comforts (except for bordellos and watering holes).  As the writer Helen Hunt Jackson commented, “It looked as if there had been a fire and the people were just dispersing, or as if a town-meeting was just over.  It was a Monaco gambling room emptied into a Colorado spruce clearing.”

According to C.C. Davis, editor of TheLeadville Chronicle, “It was a scene unlike anything I had ever seen before or conjured in my imagination…Every other door seemed to open upon a saloon, dance hall or gambling den…The board walks on either side were filled to the center with a constantly moving mass of humanity…The stalwart teamster jostled the banker from Chicago; the deep-lunged miner…divided the walk with the debonair salesman Boston; the gambler and bunco-steerer walked arm-in-arm with his freshest victim picked up in the hotel lobby.”

In 1877, there was only one mercantile operation – a general store selling some mining tools – in existence.  By 1878, lots only 25’ wide and a half-block deep on Harrison Street were selling for $200.  One year later, they were priced at $5k.  So when Charles and Herman paid the Leadville Land Improvement Company $6k for a 50’ lot on Harrison Avenue in 1979, they rejoiced over their “bargain”.  But when Charles approached the sawmills in search of lumber, he was informed all the wood was sold out.  Immediately offering $10 over the going price, he had his store under construction within days. 

Heading back to Boulder to fetch Fannie and Claude, he ruminated over the consequences of his actions, worrying most about the wisdom of bringing Fannie and three-year-old Claude to such a tumultuous town and the challenge and cost of hauling his hardware inventory over the mountains on near impassable roads.  As he later reflected, “The die was cast, it was too late to look back.  I determined to follow out my decision vigorously come good or ill.”

The store opened a month late on April 1, 1879, with The Leadville Herald reporting that customers could find everything they needed at “bottom prices” (a surprising statement, given that the high cost of transporting goods to Leadville affected everyone until the railroad arrived in 1880).  By then, the Clarendon Hotel and the Tabor Opera House had been built in the same block, creating a business district serving just about everything anyone needed.  Charles’ closest neighbors were two dry goods stores:  Daniels, Fisher and Smith (later evolving into Denver’s May D&F) and Owen and Chittenden, both well stocked with quality fabrics, ready-to-wear clothing and fine household furnishings.

By 1880, Leadville had ceased to be a mining camp, boasting a municipal government with a fire department and police force, a water and garbage collection system, gas lighting, telephone exchange, telegraph office, four banks, five newspapers, and several volunteer military operations and fraternal groups.  As business boomed, with Charles reporting a sales volume of $40,000 per month (much of it coming from the sale of blasting powder), he and Fannie rose to the ranks of the bourgeoisie, attending parties, balls and other coveted social events.  By 1881, they were members of the Leadville Mining Club, one of the town’s first social organizations.  In 1882, the couple joined the newly established Friday Night German Club and turnverein.

With comfortable family living quarters conveniently located on the second story above the business, the paper noted that “Your friend Mr. Boettcher is usually upon the floor, everywhere present, giving quick decisive orders where orders are required”.  Even with his round-the-clock schedule, he could dash upstairs for meals or have Fannie and Claude visit him in the store – and still find time to invest in – and profit from – several nearby mining properties.  As Claude became increasingly rambunctious, racing up and down the main street in goat and pony carts, his parents decided he might benefit from a private school education.  Beginning in 1886 he was enrolled in two different military schools, a fashionable custom in that day and age for those who could afford it.  For the Boettcher's money was no longer an issue.