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 ore.
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 crisis."
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.
Silver 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 away.
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.
Metal 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 positions.
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."
Ski town commute
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 keeping up.
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 Divide.
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 in 1996.
"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 action.
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 molybdenum.
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."
* Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen (email@example.com) writes from Salida, Colo., where he helps publish Colorado Central Magazine.
You can contact ...
* Lake County Commissioners Office, 719/486-0993;
* State Rep. Carl Miller, 303/866-2952;
* Asarco Black Cloud Mine, 719/486-1772;
* Leadville City Government, 719/486-0349