The Pride of Leadville’s Irish 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 main thoroughfare. However, for this Irish 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.
It was the late 1980s and Leadville was experiencing the beginning of its latest 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 streets 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 309 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.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Noon