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The Climax Mine: An old man remembers the way it was, by Jim Ludwig

Review by Ed Quillen

Mining history – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Climax Mine – An Old Man Remembers the Way It Was
by Jim Ludwig
Published in 2000 by Pleasant Avenue Nursery
ISBN 0-9679419-0-3

IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY, when a Plains Indian talked about the “Shining Times,” he meant the days when the ponies were there for the taking and the bison were abundant and fat.

Across much of Central Colorado in the late 20th century, the “Shining Times” were the days when the trains still ran and Climax Molybdenum was hiring 100 new people every week for good wages on the Continental Divide.

Those Shining Times produced thousands of stories — most of them enchanting, and many of them probably true, too. But the adventures — mostly deep inside what was once the largest underground mine in the world — have seldom been recorded on paper.

And they should be, since Climax touched every aspect of life in Central Colorado for half a century. It kept Leadville a hard-rock mining town long after its contemporaries like Aspen and Breckenridge had been forced to try something else. The steady Climax payroll provided a year-round economy as opposed to a seasonal tourist trade. And after the company town was removed in the early 1960s, the mine drew car-pool employees from places as distant as Salida, 75 miles down the Arkansas River.

Jim Ludwig of Buena Vista should be no stranger to regular readers of this magazine, since our pages have frequently been graced with his letters and reminiscences. He dropped out of college in 1948 to hire on at the bottom of the totem pole — a whistlepunk.

A couple of years later, he went back to Wisconsin to get his degree as a mining engineer, then he returned for a career at Climax, where he rose to general manager. Then he spent a few years in Golden, where he was a regional executive for Climax’s parent company.

He introduces this book as a collection of stories you might hear in a carpool en route to another shift at timberline, but it’s also a story of the changes in his career — how promotions and pay raises are valued, but there comes a time when you’re no longer “one of the guys” because you’re management, and that requires some adjustment.

The Climax Mine is a collection of tales — mostly about the mine, but the locales range from the lively saloons of Leadville to alpine lakes — often told in a poetic cadence that generally fits.

Some are just a few paragraphs, others run for several pages. The tales are aimed at old Climax hands, or at least people somewhat familiar with mining.

Ludwig put a fine glossary in the back, and he has some clear illustrations from Ted Mullings. They help considerably, but I have to wonder whether anyone who’s never looked up the finger from inside a slusher drift will quite understand the prayer and terror Ludwig conveys when he writes about shooting a hang-up.

(Basically, it meant working your way up into the mountain from a deep haulage tunnel until you found the big rock that was keeping the other ore-bearing rocks from falling down to where they could be loaded on electric-powered trains. That big rock that blocked the others — the “hang-up” — had to be dynamited. During the Shining Times, the hang-up men were the elite of the underground, much admired for both their courage and their mining skills.)

Ludwig is a natural story-teller, and he’s got some wonderful tales to tell here, of how blowhards and braggarts got their comeuppance, of close escapes from maiming or death, of the practical jokes that enlivened hard and dreary toil, and mostly of the memorable characters who were among the 60,000 people who drew Climax paychecks over the years.

Like many more-or-less self-published books, this one could have used a little polishing on the punctuation, but it’s quite readable, and more cleanly designed than most such efforts.

If you were here during the Shining Times, even if you’re like me and never worked there, you’ll enjoy these tales about the place that everyone talked about back then. If you weren’t, this is a good place to start acquiring some local lore.

— Ed Quillen