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Mountain 101: Highest towns a matter of perspective
Alma leads the nation’s nosebleed factor
John Fayhee

You would think that the determination of which Colorado municipality is the highest above sea level would be a straightforward process well-established in this altitude-crazy state. It is anything but, for a number of reasons.

It’s not unusual for people to think (and argue vociferously) that Leadville, at 10,152 feet above sea level (according to the CDOT highway signs on both ends of town), is the highest city in the U.S. After all, for many decades, Leadville itself made that claim, which has long been picked up and transmitted by media members used to quoting themselves without further verification. And Leadville is big enough and well-known enough (it once boasted a population of more than 50,000 people and, when Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876, was a serious contender for the site of the new state’s capital) that people have heard its name.

Thing is, Alma (population about 250) is located at 10,578 feet above sea level, and Montezuma (population about 60), is located at either 10,200 0r 10,400 feet, depending on your source. And, despite protestations to the contrary, both of these hamlets are officially incorporated, though both are far less serious about making their altitudinous presence known to the rest of the world than is tourist-seeking Leadville. It was because of a lack of desire for notoriety that the good folks in Alma for many years kept their lips pursed while Leadville continued to make its lofty, superlative claim.

Then, in the early ’90s, the Almaniacs, as they call themselves, took off the gloves.

“We heard or read that Leadville was spouting off again about being the highest town in the country,” ex-Alma Mayor Bob Ensign told me many years ago, as this oxygen-deprived brouhaha was transpiring. “It was Mud Season, and things were slow, so we decided to investigate.”

The result of that investigation was two-fold. First, according to Ensign, the good people of Alma, located in Park County just south of Hoosier Pass, learned there was no established criteria by which towns are legally obligated to measure their altitude, save the fact that whatever altitude they claimed had to exist somewhere within the town’s boundaries.

“We had always heard that towns measured their elevation at their post office or town hall,” Ensign said. “We talked to everyone we could think of, including the USGS (U.S. Geological Service), and could find no way to verify that.”

Next, Ensign said, even if towns were required by karmic law to measure their elevation at their post office or town hall site, then Alma is still higher than Leadville (10,355, measured from a USGS map contour in the middle of town).

The battle of thin air had commenced, and that battle included nasty letters among elected officials, town attorneys and various oxygen-deprived citizens.

“We were amused by the whole thing, but Leadville took it pretty seriously,” Ensign said.

Therefore, Alma’s Powers That Be opted to cover their bases. They adopted as the town’s high point a place that had the convenience of already boasting an official USGS benchmark: the cemetery, 10,578 feet above sea level.

An officious communique was sent over Mosquito Pass to Leadville’s municipal government. Leadville responded by threatening to annex some adjacent higher ground, and Alma responded by threatening to annex nearby Mt. Democrat, the summit of which lies at 14,148 feet. Thing is, if such an one-up annexation battle had been waged, Leadville would have ultimately emerged victorious, as its entire western skyline is dominated by the two highest peaks in the Rockies: Mt. Elbert (14,443) and Mt. Massive (14,420).

Though the battle of the highest towns went on long enough to get some media coverage, in the end, it was settled amicably enough.

By gentlemen’s agreement, Leadville got to retain the title of highest “city” in the nation, while Alma laid claim to being the highest “town.” (Colorado maintains an arcane distinction between towns — incorporated municipalities with fewer than 2,000 residents — and cities, more than 2,000.) The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Leadville’s population to be about 2,700.

But the plot thickened in 2007, when, in an effort to bypass the complicated planning process required by the Grand County government, the Winter Park Town Council annexed part of Winter Park Ski Area — up to 12,060 feet.

Shortly after the annexation, the Winter Park city government, after having the subject brought up by a Mountain Gazette writer, said there were no plans to market the town as the country’s highest incorporated municipality, as the town’s new high point consisted of a mountainside where not one single person lives. But, for a short time, the town’s official website did just that. Now, according to the site: “The elevation for the downtown area is 9,100 feet. The highest incorporated point is 12,060 feet, which is located at Winter Park Resort.”

Colorado’s highest incorporated municipalities:

  • Winter Park (12,060). Measured on the slopes of Winter Park Ski Area, where no one lives, save a few ptarmigan.
  • Alma (10,578). Measured from USGS benchmark at town’s cemetery, where also no one lives, except dead people.
  • Montezuma (10,400). Measured at Montezuma Town Hall.
  • Leadville (10,152). Measured at the first step of the old City Hall, now the Heritage Museum. It should be noted, however, that the website lists Leadville’s elevation at 10,430. Efforts to hunt down where this number came from were unsuccessful.
  • Blue River, population just under 1,000 (10,020). Measured at Blue River Town Hall.
  • The unincorporated town of St. Mary’s, in Clear Creek County, is at 10,079 feet.
  • The unincorporated town of St. Elmo, in Chaffee County, claims an elevation of 10,052 feet.

There is great disputation as to what the highest-ever town was in Colorado, at least partially because there is disputation about what defined a town back in the mining-era heyday. Here are several contenders.

  • Carson, located near Lake City, is officially referred to as a “camp.” It was located at 12,000 feet.
  • Boreas, located at 11,481 feet on the summit of Boreas Pass, between Breckenridge and Como, consisted of a railroad section house and several cabins, some of which have been renovated by the Summit Huts Association for winter recreational use.
  • Climax, between Leadville and Copper Mountain, lies above Fremont Pass at an elevation of 11,300 feet. The Climax Molybdenum Mine, around which the old town of Climax was built, re-opened in 2009. Climax was once home to the highest post office and highest train station in the country.
  • The Independence ghost town between Aspen and Independence Pass is located at 11,000 feet.

RFWJ editor M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, including “The Colorado Mountain Companion,” from which this column is excerpted.