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The oldest functioning synagogue west of the Mississippi and probably the highest elevation synagogue in the world.
Once upon a time, in the shtetls of Russia and Lithuania, synagogues built of wood were common as borscht in Brooklyn. Time, termites, pogroms and various expressions of anti-Semitism have stamped out most of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. In North America, there are a handful of these venerable old buildings which have been maintained as historical relics, and a few of them still host services.
The old wooden synagogue of Leadville, Colorado is a rare example of a frontier synagogue. Leadville, a silver mining town perched in the Colorado Rockies at 10,152 feet, is the highest incorporated city in the United States. A positively breathtaking location for a synagogue, in more ways than one. Less than 2 miles from the headwaters of the Arkansas River, Leadville’s population exploded to about 30,000 in the late 1870s when silver was discovered nearby. Approximately 1% of the population (300) were Jews seeking their fortunes as prospectors and miners but in the main as merchants and peddlers.
On Sunday afternoon, January 13, 1884 a meeting of Leadville’s leading Jewish citizens resulted in the organization of a temple association, election of officers and the decision to build Temple Israel as soon as weather permitted. Originally planned to be of brick and stone for a cost of $10,000, when Temple Israel was completed later in the year, it was a frame structure. The lot was donated by Horace Tabor, a non-Jew who became famous for his mining fortune and his extra-marital romance with one Elizabeth Blonduel Doe, forever immortalized as Baby Doe. Tabor’s fortune and fame grew and he even served as a senator. A scandal ensued when Tabor obtained a divorce of questionable legality from his spouse, Augusta, who had shared his earlier hard life as a prospector. Only a year before donating the synagogue property, the marriage between Horace and Baby Doe was finally legalized and Augusta received a substantial part of Tabor’s fortune as settlement (silver salves all). The Ballad of Baby Doe became one of the most famous American operas, with the performance by Beverly Sills achieving particular eminence.
Leadville’s population, and its Jewish population, began to decline after America’s abandonment of the silver standard in 1893. Lay leaders continued to hold services until 1908, finally selling the building in 1937. For the next 55 years the building served a variety of purposes, ultimately being purchased by the Temple Israel Foundation in 1992. Grants from the Colorado State Historical Fund, matched by private contributions, have made possible the restoration of this wonderful Carpenter Gothic synagogue which is open as a museum as well as occasionally hosting services. The building was designed by George E. King and constructed by Robert Murdock in only 2 months during the summer of 1884. It is the oldest existing synagogue west of the Mississippi. Since Leadville enjoys more than 200 inches of snow per year, all but ardent skiers, penguins and polar bears may find it best to visit in warmer months.