A Colorado town prospects for glory in its mining past

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It began as a faint hope: Prices for molybdenum were soaring thanks to demand in China. Meanwhile, the world's largest "moly" mine, which still contains a 30-year supply of the metal used in high-strength alloys, was just lying dormant here, waiting to be exploited.

Then, the mine's owner hinted at reopening last summer - a prospect that has kept the residents of America's highest-altitude city in suspense ever since. Today, as they await the results of an official study by Phelps Dodge Corp., which owns the Climax Molybdenum Mine, Leadville locals wonder whether the mine could return glory days to a town that epitomizes the boom-and-bust cycle of America's western frontier.

"Everybody's hoping it will open," says Howard Tritz, the county assessor, a fourth-generation Leadville resident, and a Climax employee for 30 years. "What we've heard is that it's not a matter of if they're going to open it, but when.... We're all anxious to see them start it up again."

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Few towns can match Leadville's storied history. Once a contender for Colo- rado's capital, it was the source of Meyer Guggenheim's fortune, and a frequent host to Jesse James, Doc Holliday, Oscar Wilde, and Susan B. Anthony. When the silver market crashed, the town resorted to gold and zinc and, in 1917, molybdenum - a hot commodity during both world wars. Despite its wild fortunes, the town has proved to be as unsinkable as another famous resident, Molly Brown.

But these days, as snow swirls around the deserted Climax mine - a massive pit at the daunting height of 11,400 feet, which includes North America's largest underground mine - it's hard to believe it once employed more than 3,000 people and supplied some three-quarters of the world's molybdenum.

When the Climax slowed its operation in the 1980s, and closed it in 1987, it nearly destroyed the city of Leadville; property values and the town's population plummeted, and Leadville eventually morphed from a mining town into a brief tourist stop and bedroom community for ski-resort workers. The county's assessed value dropped from $276 million to a low of $39 million, according to Mr. Tritz, and its unemployment spiked.

These days, the town's wide streets and colorful brick and wooden storefronts carry a whiff of the old history, but show little activity; the few motels all have vacancies, and the only indications of the once-thriving industry are the National Mining Hall of Fame and names like the Silver Dollar Saloon and Prospector Restaurant.

"Life stopped in this town when that mine closed," says Ken Chlouber, a former underground crusher shift boss at the Climax, who later became a state senator.

Phelps Dodge has been circumspect about the study and the mine's prospects. Start-up costs, training and hiring costs, and the likelihood of molybdenum prices remaining strong are all factors in the decision, says spokesman Ken Vaughn.

Some former miners remember the Climax's brief fits and starts of activity after it first closed, once for just a few months in 1989 and later in 1995. Those stints ended when moly prices dropped, and they remain skeptical that Phelps Dodge will risk it again.

"I think they'll get as much as possible out of the Henderson [a nearby mine] first," says Stephen Voynick, a former mine driller and the author of "Climax," a history of the mine.

On a recent morning, Mr. Voynick gathered with former miners - Tom Cherrier, an engineer who came to Climax from the Air Force, and Gale Richards, a maintenance worker who lived at the Climax boardinghouse in the 1950s - at the Climax exhibit at the National Mining Hall of Fame to discuss the possibility of the mine reopening. As they talk, they recall the glory days of a town they hardly recognize today.

Workers poured in from New Jersey, Nebraska, Arkansas - often hired on the spot without an interview. The mine ran its own high school and gymnasium, and people from neighboring Summit County drove to Leadville for their groceries or entertainment, instead of the other way around.

"Now it's so quiet," says Mr. Richards. A reopening, he hopes, "would get people back to work, get a little money rolling around town again."

"I can't believe they haven't already started," agrees Mr. Cherrier. "It's amazing. They've missed a whole year at $30 a pound." In 2001, moly prices were below $3 a pound.

But Leadville, despite its names and roots, has changed - and at least a few residents hope that its move away from mining toward tourism and recreation will prove more stable than the boom-and-bust years it's always had.

"There's an exciting revitalization attitude in Leadville," says Dave Wright, owner of the Golden Burro restaurant. "I think a lot of people would love to see it as a return to the old days, but that would never happen."

Both Mr. Wright and Leadville's mayor, Bud Elliot, guess that even a reopened mine would only mean several hundred, rather than several thousand new jobs. Of course, in a small town like Leadville, even that "would be quite beneficial," says Mr. Eliot.

Mr. Chlouber, the former state senator, is also guarded in his hopes. An auctioneer and former burro racer, the energetic Chlouber waxes nostalgic about his years in the underground tunnels, "making little rocks out of big rocks" in the days when tourism was an afterthought and everyone in Leadville was connected to the mine.

But he worries that the current rumor could be a bluff on the part of Phelps Dodge to scare off competitors from mining molybdenum.

Still, if the mine were to reopen? "I'd go back to work there today if I could," Chlouber says without hesitating. "It's 11:30 now? I could be ready to start that swing shift at 2:30.... If that mine would reopen, it'd not only be a big deal to Leadville, it would have a huge impact on this state."

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