For more than a century, Leadville was to Western mining towns what the Rolling Stones were to rock 'n' rollers: the biggest, wickedest and longest-lasting act around. It's also among the highest, nearly two miles above sea level at the headwaters of the Arkansas River in central Colorado. Now, after an absence of a dozen years, mining may return to the Cloud City in 2012.
Mining started there in 1859 when prospector Abe Lee announced to his companions "Boys, I've got all the gold of California in this pan." It continued until 1999, when the ASARCO Black Cloud Mine, which produced lead, silver, gold and zinc, ran out of ore and closed.
Leadville boomed with silver in the 1870s and '80s, attracting three railroads and a population of more than 20,000. But the mainstay for most of its mining career was a more obscure metal: molybdenum, generally known as "moly." Though molybdenum has a variety of uses ranging from pigment to lubricant, it mainly serves as an alloy to harden steel and make it more resistant to corrosion in uses like automotive exhaust systems and oil well stems.
The moly deposit sat right on the Continental Divide next to 11,318-foot Fremont Pass, a dozen miles north of Leadville. The railroad station at the top of the pass was named Climax, and that inspired the names of the Climax Mine and the Climax Molybdenum Co. Production began during World War I.
By 1980, it was the largest underground mine in the world. The mine and mill ran around the clock, with about 3,200 employees drawing union pay with good benefits. The property taxes funded Leadville public facilities like good schools, a library and recreation opportunities. All that collapsed in the early 1980s, right after the price of moly soared to the point where copper producers found it profitable to add molybdenum recovery circuits to their mills. Then the American auto industry, a big moly customer, abruptly hit the skids. Suddenly, there was a tremendous over-supply of molybdenum.
The Climax Mine halted production in 1982, and operated only sporadically thereafter. A third of Leadville's population moved away, and the struggling town became a bedroom community for resorts over the Continental Divide such as Vail and Breckenridge. The work was seasonal, lacking the pay and benefits of the old union mining jobs.
Will all that change for the better if Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan, the mine's corporate owner, resumes molybdenum production next year? Though there's no guarantee the mine will reopen, Freeport has already spent about $600 million to rebuild the mine and mill, with another $150 million or so to go before production can resume.
The price of moly will likely determine whether the Climax Mine re-sumes production next year. In late June, the mineral was selling for $15.18 a pound, down from $34 in the summer of 2008. But demand has grown: Lighter cars that get better gas mileage use more moly alloys for their frames and bodies. Furthermore, China—the world's leading moly producer—has declared molybdenum a strategic metal and now restricts its export. At Climax, industry experts estimate the production costs at $5.50 a pound, with the company planning to hire some 400 workers to produce 30 million pounds a year initially.
To keep production costs down, the resurrected Climax will be entirely aboveground, more like a giant quarry than a mine, and all the supplies and output will move by truck now that the railroad has been discontinued. Although the Climax mine of yore had some aboveground open-pit operations, most of it was underground, worked by miners in high boots and helmets with lights. When a big rock blocked a chute, it was called a "hangup," and the absolute king stud in any Lake County taproom was a "hangup man," the guy brave enough to make his way up the chute and drill and dynamite the hungup rock.
In recent years, Leadville has managed to get by with the help of tourism, students and faculty at its Colorado Mountain College campus, federal cleanup spending and residential construction. As Leadville mayor Bud Elliott puts it, the town has learned to live without a mine. Now, he says, "It should be better with one, but we'll manage one way or the other."
Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Salida, Colorado.