LEADVILLE • At the end of a snowy road through willows and evergreens, a Victorian building emerges that looks like the home of royalty.
Instead, it houses fish.
“A lot of people are very, very surprised when they come here,” says Josh Homer. “They had no idea.”
Homer is the tall, bearded manager of Leadville National Fish Hatchery. For 130 years, within these sandstone walls, some of the most sought after trout by Colorado anglers have been bred to be caught. They have been stored in some of the region’s most sought-after waters, including Turquoise and Twin Lakes and the creeks that stretch far beyond. Brilliant Rainbows usually leave a respectable 10 inches, fed by Homer and the Hatchery’s resident hands.
Feeding and cleaning the tank are daily tasks. In the winter, shoveling and plowing are other chores here above 10,000 feet. People find snow piled on the historic hatchery walls.
They could come and see the fish. Or they could come for the trails in the surrounding woods flanked by Colorado’s highest peaks. Each year, the site receives approximately 50,000 visits.
“In the summer, there’s an irrigation ditch that runs and runs down the slope next to the nature trail,” says Judie Cole of the nonprofit Friends of Leadville National Fish Hatchery. . “And I swear there are elves and fairies living there.” It’s really magical.
Magic, repeats her husband, Mark. “I mean, the hatchery building itself is like a cathedral.”
Originally a cathedral with a high ceiling and oak beams. Today, perhaps Colorado’s most sacred fish swims here.
It’s the greenback cutthroat trout, the genetically pure strain that was thought to be extinct before research at the turn of the century.
In 2008, 66 adults from the group discovered in the Bear Creek watershed at Pikes Peak were transported to a facility in Salida to begin a restoration and spawning effort. This effort continues from the Leadville Hatchery, where greenbacks are bred and destined for several lakes around the state.
The effort “is still on shaky ground at this point,” Homer says. “Most of the waters we’ve put these fish in have been pretty rough.”
Greenbacks are “touching” and “delicate”, he says, lethally susceptible to disturbances such as changes in water temperature, dirt buildup and fires. He says greenbacks have a hard time fitting in with other populations. For example, the brook trout “is much more aggressive than the greenback,” Homer says. “They’re basically going to kick them out of an area.”
Yet each summer more and more endangered trout are bred here at the hatchery. Paige Moran, the biologist who lives next door, helps. It’s his favorite part of the job.
“It’s exciting to create new hope for the future of an endangered species,” she says.
Greenbacks have become the top priority at America’s second oldest federally run hatchery. Inside, pictures on the walls show life on this farm dating back to 1889, when it was established with the signature of President Benjamin Harrison.
It was created in light of the rapid and drastic habitat loss seen during Colorado’s first decade of existence. This has been blamed on overfishing and destruction. There were stories of miners throwing dynamite into streams to get their trout dinners.
The booming epicenter of Leadville was chosen for its subalpine environment, with cold streams and lakes better suited to cold-blooded trout. The hatchery would also benefit from the railway. Before today’s trucks, fish was transported by milk cans in first-class train carriages.
They were also transported into the mountains on horseback or by mule, a method that inspired tall tales. One hatchery employee remembers from 1898:
“First (a box) slid off the wagon and very few (fish) were knocked over. Then the roof blew off when the mule jumped over a log, and we may have lost some a few hundred. Then the rope came out of the handle and the top flew off again, but only a few came out.
The highly sought-after trout were deemed worthy of such missions. They were worthy of the hatchery building which was completed in 1891. A local newspaper called it “the most magnificent building in western Colorado”.
Read another article: “The hatchery promises to be an ideal vacation spot for tourists and those who wish to observe the great prospects of fish farming.”
A proclamation celebrating 100 years of the hatchery called it “an integral part of the community and economy of Leadville” and said it “has played a long and illustrious role in Leadville’s colorful history. “.
Based in Estes Park, Chris Kennedy, a veteran fish biologist, studied this story. The hatchery “definitely had a big effect on fishing in Colorado,” he says. “And also across the country and even the world.”
He determined that the hatchery received and/or distributed fish to 37 states, to support six countries. This includes Argentina, France, Germany and, according to a 1910 article, “the private reserves of his Imperial Majesty the Mikado of Japan”.
Few hatcheries can claim this type of awareness. Of course, few have lasted like Leadville. Federal funding is always a concern for the team here.
“Over the years, there’s been talk of closing it, as is the case with hatcheries across the country,” Kennedy says. “But the community support there is integral.”
That’s what Homer thinks of when he thinks about how the Hatchery has stood the test of time. He thinks of the children near the feeding pond.
“There’s just something about the fish,” he says. “I think they make people happy.”