For the past 139 years, men and machines have mined along the gulches at the source of Colorado's Arkansas River, producing metals worth more than $2 billion at current prices.
That era ended Jan. 29, when the Asarco
Black Cloud Mine, which sits above timberline about 10 miles east
of Leadville, Colo., hoisted its last carload of
The mine, which produced lead, zinc, silver
and gold, will employ only 23 people for water treatment and
limited exploration. The 105 hard-rock miners and millhands who
lost their jobs were the surviving remnants of the thousands who
once worked in Lake County.
"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
Local mining goes back to 1860 and Oro
City, a placer-gold camp on nearby California Gulch. After it
played out, the place was almost deserted until rich silver ore was
discovered in 1875.
The ensuing Leadville boom
produced a city of 20,000 overnight, perched two miles above sea
level and soon served by three railroads, an opera house, 112
saloons and hundreds of working girls.
prices collapsed in 1893. So Leadville turned to zinc, lead and
gold. When those metals faltered with the Great Depression and
World War II, Climax Molybdenum arrived to open one of the largest
underground mines in the world.
In 1980, Climax
employed 3,000, and ore reserves were deemed sufficient for another
32 years of round-the-clock production. But by 1982, molybdenum - a
little-known metal which hardens steel - had dropped from $18 a
pound to $3.
Climax closed its portals. The
assessed valuation of Lake County dropped from $250 million to less
than $50 million, and a third of the county's 9,000 residents moved
Even so, the Black Cloud kept running. It
was a relative newcomer; development began in 1968 at the base of
14,035-foot Mount Sherman. But Asarco, its owner, had been around
town since the turn of the century, when it was the American
Smelting & Refining Co. and the source of a Guggenheim fortune
that now endows museums and scholars.
prices have dropped to a 12-year low, Black Cloud manager Sid Lloyd
said, but that's not the main reason the mine closed. "We just ran
out of ore," he explained.
They had been looking
for new ore bodies with an extensive core-drilling operation, he
said, "and exploration will continue here, at least into the middle
of this year. After that, the corporate plans are a little fuzzy."
Black Cloud's laid-off miners worked under a
production-based contract, he said, earning from $40,000 to $65,000
a year. Topside millhands made about $25,000, "and they all had
full benefits - medical, dental, retirement - all that good stuff."
The Black Cloud's closure is another blow to
Leadville's school district, where three recent bond issues have
failed, even though roofs leak and some windows are so loose that
snowdrifts form indoors.
State school aid is
based on enrollment; at least 50 of Leadville's 1,100 students are
from Black Cloud families and likely to move soon. When the mine
closed in January, the struggling district had just cut 10 staff
The closure will have little immediate
effect on the county budget, according to Kent Hagar, county
administrator. Asarco's assessed valuation was more than $5.1
million last year, he said, and with the mine out of production,
that will drop by only $65,000.
"But if they
start removing the buildings and machinery, then their assessment
and taxes will really drop."
Lake County and Leadville have problems
now - the population is growing from the depths of 1985, which
means more demand for public services, but the tax base isn't
Leadville's new residents aren't
well-paid miners. Often from Mexico and working without documents,
they cook and clean for ski resorts in adjacent Summit County
(Breckenridge and Copper Mountain) and Eagle County (Vail and
Beaver Creek). They commute daily over the Continental
Their jobs offer long hours and few
benefits. Lake County and Leadville provide the missing services:
reduced-cost medical care, the law-enforcement associated with a
transient population, a costly "Limited English Proficiency"
program in the schools that zoomed from 11 students in 1991 to 134
"We get the costs of serving those
residents," Mayor Pete Moore observed, "but they work at resorts
that pay their property taxes in other counties. And they often
shop over there, too, so we don't get the sales tax, either. It
puts us in a hard position, and it won't get any easier with the
Black Cloud closing."
The possibility of sharing
some revenue from the rich resort counties has been considered by
the five-county Rural Resort Region, put together to address such
issues, but so far there has been no
State Rep. Carl Miller, a Leadville
Democrat, said he'd try again this year for a state law to allow
this. "We've had a Mineral Impact Fund that was distributed to
counties based on employee residence, which made sense because the
place where a mine pays property taxes isn't necessarily the place
where its employees live and need services," he said. "Maybe it's
time for a Tourism Impact Fund that works along the same lines."
Right now, it doesn't pay to be a bedroom town,
Mayor Moore said, and the option of tourism "is about as bad as
mining if it's your only industry. Mining relies on metal prices
that nobody has any control over, and tourism is a function of
gasoline prices, another thing we don't have much to say about."
For well over a century, when one Leadville mine
closed, another always opened, as production shifted among gold,
silver, zinc, lead, tungsten, tin, copper, iron, manganese and
This time around, there isn't another
mine. "I don't know what kind of town we're going to become," Moore
said, "but we're not a mining town any more."
(email@example.com) writes from Salida, Colo., where he helps
publish Colorado Central Magazine.
You can contact
* Lake County Commissioners Office,
* State Rep. Carl Miller,
* Asarco Black Cloud Mine,
* Leadville City Government,