Remembering the shining times

Article by Steve Voynick

Leadville – February 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

BACK IN THE 1970s, the Golden Burro Café & Lounge on historic Harrison Avenue in Leadville, Colorado, did a land-office business when the shifts changed at the nearby Climax Mine. I was one of those miners who grabbed a quick meal or a cup of coffee at the Burro before our shifts. When our shifts were finished, we were back at the Burro, this time for a cold beer or two, and to talk about everything that mattered in Leadville in those days, from fishing the high lakes to drawing elk permits and buying new pickups. Mostly we exchanged “Climax talk” about development on the 900 Level, job bids, and how we’d spend our coming paychecks.

Those were heady times in Leadville. Thirteen miles away atop Fremont Pass, the Climax Mine worked around the clock digging molybdenum ore from a gaping open pit and three sprawling underground levels. With Climax hiring dozens of new hands every week, Leadville was a magnet for miners from Coeur d’Alene to Casa Grande. Sure, most quit after a week of underground drilling and timbering in the thin, 11,000-foot air, but those who stayed earned good wages and experienced life in one of the West’s last metal-mining boom towns.

None of Leadville’s legendary 19th-century gold and silver booms ever matched molybdenum’s long-term prosperity. By the late 1970s, the Climax molybdenum mine was employing 3,000 people and pumping an after-taxes, $1.2-million payroll into Leadville’s economy every other Friday.

Payday was an event in itself. By 10 a.m., a horde of wives and girlfriends gathered at the post office awaiting the envelopes containing the Climax paychecks. And when day shift rolled into town at 4 p.m., hundreds of miners headed straight for the banks. Restaurants were full, lines of overloaded shopping carts rolled out of Safeway, and cash registers rang like jingle bells in every store and gas station in town. New cars and overpowered pickups roared up and down Harrison Avenue until well after midnight. And at closing time, the bars were still standing-room-only, and so was the county jail.

Today, Climax miners — now former miners — still drink coffee at the Golden Burro. If we get there early enough, we watch the line of cars leaving town. But their occupants aren’t headed for high-paying jobs at Climax any more. Instead, they’re beginning an hour-long commute out of the county, mostly to low-paying, menial jobs at ski resorts in Beaver Creek, Vail, and Copper Mountain.

Leadville, for more than a century a classic mining town, has now become a tourist town in the summer and a bedroom community for the ski industry in the winter. But deeper changes lie in sweeping demographic revisions, growing social problems, and a community that seems divided and directionless after 20 years of economic stagnation.

Climax, Leadville’s economic mainstay for 50 years, operated at full capacity until molybdenum prices suddenly crashed and mass layoffs began in December 1981. Within a year, 3,000 people were laid off and enrollment in the county school system, along with the number of Leadville bank accounts, had dropped 50 percent. As personal-property taxes soared, houses that sold for $60,000 a year earlier were going for $35,000, and there were 300 of them on the market. Liquor stores, car dealerships, shoe stores, gas stations, and the JC Penney and Skaggs Drug outlets had closed their doors. Lake County (Leadville is the county’s only town) lost half its population, including many young professionals who left to pursue careers elsewhere.

THE FIRST ECONOMIC-DEVELOPMENT consultant arrived in 1983 to announce the obvious: Leadville should diversify its economy and develop tourism. Leadville’s rich history, along with its high mountains and status as North America’s highest incorporated city, had always drawn tourists. During the Climax days, Leadville welcomed tourists, but never sought them, since tourist money was just a little extra icing on the economic cake.

Leadville soon learned that developing local tourism meant competing with other Colorado towns that also sold mining history and mountain splendor. But while Leadville was busy mining molybdenum, those other towns had developed their tourism resources and promotional techniques, and were now way ahead in the tourism game.

Economic-development consultants also suggested developing light industry to create local jobs. But with no rail service, a location off the main highways, only a small airport where weather and thin air often curtail operations, and the tough subalpine climate typical of 10,000-foot elevations, Leadville wasn’t about to compete with anyone for light industry.

Leadville also learned that, without Climax, its residents no longer shared common interests. Not everyone even wanted tourism, especially the hundreds of pensioned Climax miners who were content to hunt, fish, and drink coffee at the Burro — without rubbing elbows with a bunch of tourists.

Then, just as Leadville tried desperately to project a favorable tourism image, the Environmental Protection Agency declared parts of the town and its nearby mining district (not the Climax Mine) a Superfund site, calling national attention to exactly what tourists didn’t need to hear — the town had high levels of toxic lead in the soil and heavy-metal pollution of waterways.

Leadville’s miners were furious. Many had mined during World War II and the Korean War, answering the federal government’s demands for every pound of lead, zinc, and molybdenum that Leadville’s mines could produce. Then, the government didn’t care where the mine waste, mill tailings, and mine-drainage pollution went. But now the government suddenly did care, and the EPA hired out-of-town contractors to build a water treatment plant, haul away toxic soil, and cap old waste heaps. This divided Leadville even further as some residents wanted the EPA out, while others looked ahead to a time when a clean environment would be an asset.

Meanwhile, as Leadville residents bickered among themselves, the big Colorado ski resorts to the north underwent explosive growth. Unconcerned about employee housing, these resorts let their thousands of workers find their own places to live. Without Climax, Leadville had lots of affordable housing, so that’s where the ski workers went. By 1990, Leadville’s future had arrived. Through no intent of its own, the proud, old mining town had become a bedroom community for the ski industry.

THE FORMER MINERS sitting around the Burro in the evenings now watch the cars returning from the ski resorts to unload mostly young passengers who speak as much Spanish as English. Leadville’s new work force sports dreadlocks, backwards baseball caps, and baggy “grunge” pants, and carries backpacks and snowboards. Amidst the background of Leadville’s frontier-era Victorian architecture and mine-scarred hills, this contemporary work force looks, well, different.

And that’s ironic, because if these young ski-resort workers could somehow glimpse Harrison Avenue as it was in the 1970s, they’d also call it different. Leadville was then a one-note town of, as the song says, “red necks and blue collars,” a town that didn’t need new ideas or new people, unless they had to do with mining. Although content in its isolation, Leadville was then decades behind in mainstream culture and style. And even the molybdenum money couldn’t solve all the problems. Climax attracted many transients who worked briefly, then quit to hang around town causing trouble. Leadville had a reputation for fights, big-time drinking, tough bars, and even a wide-open whorehouse that stayed in business until 1974.

BUT IF YOU AVOIDED the riffraff, Leadville was a fine place to live and to raise families. Climax always made sure of that. In 1967, Climax single-handedly floated a $2-million bond issue to establish a local campus of Colorado Mountain College. Over 25 years, the mine contributed $1 million for 50 full, four-year college scholarships for Lake County High School seniors. In 1979 alone, Climax paid $2.7 million to the county school system, $1 million to the county, and $500,000 to the college tax district. Lake County topped every rural Colorado county in per-capita income, and in the percentage of high-school seniors who went on to four-year colleges.

Climax also provided such intangibles as a sense of community and pride. Whether running a muck train on the Storke Level or pumping gas in town, everyone knew they played for the same team.

Today, that sense of unity and purpose is gone. When the 1,500 resort workers return after their 12-hour day of commuting over icy passes to punch lift tickets and wash towels for $8 an hour, Leadville is just a place to sleep. Payday is no longer anything special, except for the post-office crowd buying international money orders to send back to their real homes.

Many resort workers drift into town in October, then drift out again in April. Most rent their accommodations and pay minimal local taxes. They use the local medical clinic and hospital, but having little health insurance, they often leave bills unpaid. They also make full use of county social services and schools — or what’s left of the schools, because what was once the state’s top rural school system now has a high dropout rate.

Few people talk about Leadville’s growing racial fragmentation. Hispanics first settled in Leadville in numbers in 1917, but with Climax as a common denominator, race never meant much. Many Hispanics filled key jobs at Climax where they earned pensions. But now, an independent Hispanic subculture has taken root. It speaks only Spanish, has its own stores and restaurants, and interacts little with Leadville’s traditional Anglo culture.

Tourism has increased in Leadville, but no faster than anywhere else, and it’s not the panacea that many had hoped for. Like the ski industry, tourism is seasonal, with 75 percent of visitors arriving during the brief, three-month-long summer, a critical period when profits must carry many merchants through the long off-season.

Some say that if the competence of Leadville’s political leadership had remained on a par with that of the old days, many current woes could have been avoided. In reality, the Three Stooges could have run things during the Climax years. As one example, the biggest debate in the county in 1974 was whether to spend $4 million or $5 million for a new school. With local coffers overflowing, the school board went for the $5 million and built what was then the state’s most modern rural intermediate school. Today the board argues over where to scrape up $150,000 to repair roof leaks in that same school.

Still, everything hasn’t been gloom and doom. In 1986, Leadville was chosen as the home of the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, which now draws 31,000 visitors annually. Along Harrison Avenue, historic buildings have been renovated, sidewalks replaced, and attractive, Victorian-style street lamps installed. Bikers and hikers acclaim Leadville’s new Mineral Belt Trail as one of the best in the West. The local Colorado Mountain College campus has expanded, as has Ski Cooper, Leadville’s nearby, county-owned day-skiing area. And after two controversial decades, the EPA has cleaned up the mine-drainage pollution and many eyesores left behind by a century of unregulated mining.

Yet none of this has filled the void left by the Climax shutdown. With the current county population of 9,000, not much above the rock-bottom bust levels of the 1980s, the bottom line is that Leadville’s biggest post-Climax achievement has been surviving by adapting to a lower economic level.

COULD LEADVILLE HAVE built itself a better future in the post-Climax years? Contrary to the rosy views of the economic-development consultants, I doubt it. Given the circumstances — the suddenness and severity of the bust, the forced departure of many long-time residents, the fragmentation of community interests, the EPA presence, and the loss of purpose and pride, all compounded by geographic isolation, high elevation, and limited transportation facilities — Leadville has done the best it could.

The West’s legions of ghost towns prove that successful economic transition and continued prosperity are not always possible. While Leadville certainly isn’t a ghost town, neither is it a model of economic recovery. It’s drifting along somewhere in that big no-man’s land between the two.

Some folks say that Leadville simply lost control in the 1980s. But Leadville never really had control of anything. With Climax running the show for decades, Leadville had no reason to develop the skills necessary to take charge, to think creatively, to compete, and to plot its own course. And when Climax went down, the lack of those skills was the biggest problem of all.

Sure, new people are proposing new ideas in Leadville today. Yet Leadville, even without its mines, somehow still seems to be a mining town. And those old-timers drinking coffee at the Golden Burro seem to be waiting for an all-seeing, all-powerful, modern-day reincarnation of the Climax Mine to arise, to solve their problems, and to lead Leadville out of the wilderness.

Steve Voynick once worked for a living as a hard-rock miner before taking up full-time writing.