New life for Leadville with return of Climax
December 13, 2007
No one reported any dancing along Harrison Avenue, but some long-awaited good news arrived for Leadville and central Colorado last week. The Climax Molybdenum Mine atop 11,318-foot Fremont Pass will go back into production, with work starting next spring.These days, more than a quarter of a century after the Shining Times when the mine ran full blast around the clock, its hard to explain how important it was back in the 1970s. Climax employed more than 3,000 people. Unlike most tourism jobs, mining was year-round work that paid good wages and offered solid benefits.At one time, Climax was the largest underground mine in the world. It represented continuity. The richest placer camp of the 1859 gold rush was Oro City along California Gulch near the top of the Arkansas River. Oro City had almost faded away when miners discovered that the thick black sand that had been clogging their sluice boxes was actually rich silver ore, and so nearby Leadville was born with a silver boom in 1877.The Leadville rush inspired prospecting all over the state; one result was Aspen. But in 1893, the federal government quit subsidizing silver. Leadville suffered plenty, but its hills turned out to be rich in other minerals, like lead, zinc, copper, bismuth and gold. A general collapse in metal prices after World War I might have killed the place, but at Climax, a dozen miles from town, men were mining an obscure metallic element: molybdenum.It appears in many products, such as lubricants and paints, but mostly it is used in alloys to harden steel for, among other things, cannon barrels and tank armor. On that account, it was an important defense facility, guarded around the clock by soldiers during World War II.When Climax was running at its peak in the late 1970s, it kept everything else running in the Arkansas valley. Payday meant busy stores. Smart kids got Climax scholarships and worked summers at the mine. Its property taxes meant Leadville had one of the better school systems in Colorado. Mineral-impact fund grants, money that originated at Climax, provided public facilities to towns like Buena Vista and Salida.With about five carloads a day running in and out, Climax kept the trains running back in the day. There was the Colorado & Southern line from Leadville to the mine, and it connected with the Denver & Rio Grande Westerns tracks over Tennessee Pass.As late as 1980, Leadville was still very much a mining town.But then American steel production collapsed. There went the main market for molybdenum. CF&I closed its Pueblo steel mill, so it no longer needed limestone from Chaffee County, and there went the Monarch Quarry rail line from Salida. Everything I thought I knew about this areas economy turned out to be wrong. Towns that had been doing pretty much the same things for a century had to change, and they did.Now the mine is coming back. But the railroad wont, and with a few hundred employees, Climax wont be the economic engine it was when it had 3,000 employees.I go to conferences and hear people from Crested Butte complain about plans for mining molybdenum nearby, and I want to ask, Whats so wrong about stable employment at good wages? Does any ski area offer that? Does mining really do any more damage to the landscape than industrial tourism does?Alas, I dont have the answers. In a global economy, none of us knows what the price of molybdenum, or gasoline for tourists, will be next year. Life in the Colorado mountains is a crapshoot, and its been that way for about 150 years.Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.