An Industrial-Strength Identity Crisis

Essay by Ed Quillen

Leadville – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

WE’VE BEEN READING a lot about the “judgment of history” lately, usually in reference to the impeachment and trial in Washington. But hereabouts, future historians might well reach the verdict that 1999 was the year that the mineral industry departed from Central Colorado.

Cozinco, which processed zinc near Salida, was sold to a bigger company, which in turn announced it was closing this plant and moving the machinery elsewhere.

The bigger news was that the Asarco Black Cloud Mine, about 10 miles east of Leadville at the foot of Mt. Sherman, was closing. The last carload of ore came up the hoist on January 29, and 105 miners and millhands lost their jobs. About 20 employees will remain on the payroll, to keep the water-treatment plant running and to continue exploration in the hope of finding more ore.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as a mining town,” Leadville Mayor Pete Moore said, “and now that our last mine has closed, we’re facing an identity crisis.”

THIS RAISES an interesting question: How does a community get an identity in the first place, and what does it do when that identity no longer fits?

Gunnison obviously likes to think of itself as a “cowtown.” The high-school teams are Cowboys. The big summer festival is Cattlemen Days. Restaurants, among them “The Cattleman,” feature cowboy paraphernalia and decorations.

Gunnison, I have been told by people in a position to know, isn’t really a cowtown, at least in an economic sense. The town’s economy is based on Western State College and on providing housing and other services for the Crested Butte ski resort.

“If we lost every ranch around here,” I once heard, “it would be barely a hiccough to the local economy. There just aren’t that many ranches, and they’re not all that profitable.”

But the ranches are still there, and by all accounts, Gunnison wants them to stay — cows make better neighbors than condos.

Gunnison’s identification as a “cowtown” is a cultural identification, not an economic one, but it has a basis in reality.

Upstream from Gunnison lies Crested Butte, which began its days as a mining town: silver at first, but mostly coal. That lasted until the 1950s, when the mine closed and the rails were torn out.

Crested Butte’s identification as a “mining town” had pretty well faded by the time that ski lifts were installed to take advantage of its long and snowy winters. It became a “ski town” with a “mining heritage,” sort of like Aspen or Breckenridge.

A heritage of this nature, like some colorful ancestor who robbed banks and terrorized the territory, is best left in the past — for it doesn’t fit well in the present. Witness the outcry in Aspen when someone proposed mining silver or quarrying marble near town, or the fight Crested Butte put up in opposition to the proposed Mt. Emmons molybdenum mine. Though mining may contribute a quaintly nostalgic identity for such places, the truth is, “We used to be a mining town, but we’re definitely not any more.”

Ski towns, however, aren’t the only places that are redefining their historic identities. Consider Crestone, which seems to identify itself as a New Age vortex for the enlightened and those who wish to be enlightened.

Crestone began as a mining town, as indicated by its street names: Galena, Carbonate, Copper, etc. The only history of the place that I’ve seen is called Drillin’, Loadin’ and Firin’. And yet, when the exploration drills appeared for what might develop into future gold mining, the protests were rapid and energetic.

The attitude appears to be that once the mining industry leaves, it is not welcome to return. A community that loses its mines either becomes a ghost town, or turns to other pursuits to survive. And those other pursuits often don’t fit well with mining.

You get the idea that mining isn’t just some industry — it’s a way of life that requires a supporting cultural framework in the form of community identification.

The same might hold true for prisons. Cañon City attracts millions of tourists each year to the Royal Gorge. Its orchards produce renowned fruits and ciders. But to me and many other people, it’s a “prison town.” Cañon recruits prisons and does everything it can to accommodate them.

IS BUENA VISTA headed down the same path, and if so, how can one tell? The Buena Vista Correctional Facility, although a major part of Chaffee County’s economy, doesn’t seem (to me, anyway) to be a major identity factor.

Buena Vista seems more interested in being “the Whitewater Capital of Colorado,” or “the Home of the 14ers.” In many of its residents’ eyes, Buena Vista is a place for recreation and scenery, rather than walls and guard towers.

You can see the conflicts that such diverse community visions induce. In Buena Vista, for example, the conflicts show up in debates over the proposed Deytel subdivision north of town.

The developer says the prison is growing and the new employees will need affordable housing — modulars on one-acre lots. The opponents say such developments are unsightly sprawl that destroys the very reasons people find Buena Vista attractive.

If Buena Vista were truly a “prison town,” then there wouldn’t be this controversy. In a prison town, what the prison needs, it gets.

Salida and Alamosa have common roots — both established about 120 years ago as railroad division points. Alamosa also has some real agriculture around it, and retains active railroad operations. Some people will call it a “college town” on account of Adams State College. It seems to have a variety of community identities — railroad, agriculture, college, commercial center.

These days, Salida seems to be trying to define its identity with the arts community in the forefront of promoting a Taos del Norte in Historic Downtown Salida on the banks of the Free-Flowing Arkansas River.

Salida hasn’t identified itself as a railroad town for a long time — so long that most guidebooks identify it as a one-time mining camp that turned to ranching, thus ignoring the two roundhouses, locomotive shops, and railroad hospital.

To see how far Salida has moved from that identification, conduct a thought experiment. Suppose some company bought the Tennessee Pass line and proposed a major tourist operation with cinder-belching steam locomotives, all based in Salida. Think of the resulting noise and air pollution, and of the resulting local anger from people who had enjoyed Salida’s quiet nights and clear skies.

In other words, re-establishing Salida as a “railroad town” would be as difficult as re-establishing Crestone or Crested Butte as “mining towns.” However important that industry was in the past, it doesn’t fit now.

LET US RETURN TO Leadville, where the last mine just closed and there’s an “identity crisis.”

The Black Cloud isn’t an abandoned property — Asarco is continuing to explore for new ore, although no one knows how long the exploration might continue past this summer. But it’s entirely possible that they’ll find a new ore body and the mine will go back into production.

As long as such hopes remain, Leadville will still be a “mining town.” I can remember visiting Cripple Creek in the 1960s, when its gold mines and the Golden Cycle Mill were closed. But the lights remained on at the Ajax shaft house above Victor, and the locals would explain that someday the price of gold would rise above the government-mandated $35 an ounce, and then production would resume, and all would be well with the world.

Assume, though, that Asarco’s exploration efforts come up dry. What, then, for Leadville and its identity?

It really can’t take the path of Aspen, Breckenridge, and Telluride — mining town transformed into ski resort. For one thing, the ski industry is flat — there aren’t enough skiers around to support a new resort.

In economic terms, Lake County Commissioner Jim Morrison (who also had a job at the Black Cloud) is probably looking at the sensible path.

As it is, about half of Leadville’s workforce commutes to Vail and other resorts on the I-70 corridor. The resulting woes for Lake County have been amply chronicled here and elsewhere.

Morrison says that they should be trying to move some of those jobs to where the workers are. “Those valleys are narrow and they’re about out of space, and we’ve got room,” he points out. Lodging reservations could be taken and processed as easily in Leadville as in Vail or Summit county, and there are some other services, like laundry and vehicle maintenance, that could be performed in Leadville.

“If people live and work here,” Morrison said, “we’ll have a much healthier community than if they live here but make those long commutes to work. They’ll have more time and energy to be involved in the community.

“And they’ll be more likely to shop here, too,” he continued. That offers many benefits to Leadville, starting with more sales tax to a hard-strapped local economy, and eventually, a greater retail base that provides more local employment.

But it won’t just happen. “The land we have available is just outside town,” Morrison said, “and we’d need to extend utilities and roads. We don’t have the money for that, though, and so we’re looking.”

It seems to me that Colorado and America owe Leadville. Its silver built those big mansions on Capitol Hill in Denver, and financed Colorado’s industrial development: Ideal Cement, Great Western Sugar, various railroads, power companies, telephone companies — they all resulted from money that came from Leadville.

This extends beyond Colorado. The Guggenheim Foundation, patron of scholars and the arts, is based on Leadville silver. So are the Marshall Field department stores of Chicago, and if I took the time to track historic capital flows, I’m sure I could find much more.

NOW, AFTER 140 years of producing wealth for the rest of the world, Leadville needs some capital to finance a transformation, and it seems only fair that it gets some from the rest of the world.

But even if that works, it won’t address the “identity crisis.” Leadville won’t be a “mining town” any more, but there really isn’t an identity in “providing support services for nearby ski resorts.” Just ask Gunnison, which sticks with cattle even if Crested Butte’s tourists are much more important to its economy.

I can’t really see Leadville becoming an “art colony,” “cowtown,” “major tourist destination,” or “spiritual center.” But I’d hate to see it subsumed into “VailSouth” or “SummitWest,” either, even if that reflects economic reality.

Since about 1970, I’ve had a fondness for Leadville. In those days, my hair was red, not gray, and I had so much of it that it cascaded down over my shoulders. We “hippie commie perverts” weren’t welcome in much of Colorado, especially Aspen, where it was feared that we might scare the upscale tourists into going to more sanitized resorts.

SO I WAS DAMN NEAR SCARED one summer afternoon when Martha and I, bound from the plains to a few days of camping in the mountains, lost a fan belt on our way down the Leadville side of Frémont Pass. If we were less than welcome in enlightened spots like Aspen, could we escape being lynched in an alleged redneck mecca like Leadville?

We coasted into town and pulled in at the first gas station. The guy was quite friendly, although he didn’t have the belt in stock. Just then the distributor’s small tanker truck arrived. The driver ambled over, said he thought he had the belt at the warehouse, and returned a few minutes later. He helped install it, and refused to take a nickel for his trouble. Then, as we chatted, he introduced himself as the mayor of Leadville, where we now felt quite welcome. We had planned to head on down to the San Juans to camp; instead, we camped near Leadville for a couple of days.

It’s a paradox. With its mines running full-bore, Leadville didn’t really give a damn whether it attracted tourists or not. Visitors were assumed to be people interested in the place and were treated like guests, rather than like geese to be plucked. Whereas the glamorous tourist towns did their best to discourage visitations by hippies, ski bums, and vacationing college kids, Leadville was friendly to tourists of all sorts.

Whereas the tourist towns reserved their practiced smiles for only the proper middle-aged, well-monied sort of tourist, Leadville wasn’t afraid of the unalluring presence of young people and tired campers who arrived in battered, mud-splattered vehicles.

All this formed my image of Leadville as a rather friendly and tolerant place, so secure in its identity that it didn’t feel threatened by off-beat visitors. To this day, I don’t know whether that’s part of Leadville’s “community identity” or not — but I hope it is, and I hope that it persists as Leadville tries to redefine itself after losing its last mine.

— Ed Quillen