In search of the Glory Days

Two decades after the bust, Colorado's last great mining town still gropes for a new identity

  • HIGH LIFE: Crowds gathered in downtown Leadville in 1947, lining the streets for the annual Tabor Days parade, a celebration of mining

    Heritage Museum
  • HANGING ON: Downtown Leadville has a weak pulse today, but there are threads of hope, such as the ongoing restoration of the Tabor Opera House. Built in 1879 by silver baron H.A.W. Tabor, the 800-seat opera house is open in summer as a museum

    J.T. Thomas
  • "MAN TRIP": That was the slang for the trains that carried miners on their daily commute through the Climax Mine, pictured here around the 1930s

    Heritage Museum
  • BOOM AND BUS: Buses come from the resort counties to pick up workers in Leadville

    J.T. Thomas
  • NEW SUBCULTURE: In his store in Leadville, Arturo Murillo conducts business in Spanish, selling everything you'd expect to find in a tienda south of the border - including Mexican trinkets and candies, sombreros and loteria cards

    J.T. Thomas
  • STRIDING THROUGH HISTORY: Mike LeVine, a retiree from Chicago, skis the Mineral Belt Trail with his dog Leo. The trail features mining relics and signs explaining Leadville's mining heritage

    J.T. Thomas
  • Map

    Diane Sylvain

LEADVILLE, Colo. -- Back in the 1970s, when Leadville thrived as Colorado's last great mining town, the Golden Burro Cafe & Lounge on Harrison Avenue bustled day and night when the miners' shifts changed.

I was one of those who grabbed a quick meal or a cup of coffee at the Burro before driving out to work for the largest local employer, the Climax Mine. When our shifts at the mine finished, we went back to the Burro for cold beer and to talk about everything that mattered in Leadville in those days. Mostly we exchanged "Climax talk" about developments at the mine and how we planned to spend our coming paychecks.

It was a heady time in Leadville. Just 13 miles away, at timberline atop Fremont Pass, the AMAX Climax Mine operated around the clock, digging molybdenum ore from an open pit and sprawling underground tunnels. With Climax constantly hiring, Leadville was a magnet for would-be miners from Idaho to Arizona. Sure, most quit after a week of underground drilling and timbering in the thin air. But those who could handle it earned what seemed like a secure life.

The Climax Mine had operated for more than 50 years under various owners, growing to employ 3,000 people, pumping an after-taxes $1.2-million payroll into Leadville's economy every other Friday. Miners earned $12 an hour and good benefits - the equivalent of $80,000 a year in today's dollars.

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 back into town at 4 p.m., hundreds of miners headed straight for the banks to make withdrawals. 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. New cars and overpowered pickups roared up and down Harrison Ave. until well after midnight. Even at closing time, the bars were still standing-room-only, and so was the county jail.

Today, a few ex-miners still drink coffee at the Golden Burro. If we get to the cafe early enough, we can still watch a line of cars leaving town. But the cars and their occupants aren't headed for nearby mining jobs anymore. Instead, they're beginning an hour-long, torturous commute over the Continental Divide, mostly to low-paying, menial jobs in busy resort towns, where the employers include Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Beaver Creek.

The transformation has happened in many places, but here it's most painfully obvious. The towns at the end of the commute, in Summit and Eagle counties, include the nation's three busiest ski resorts, plus vacation homes for the likes of Dan Quayle, Gerald Ford, H. Ross Perot and other Fortune 500 barons, exclusive gated communities, tourist lodging that can average $400 per night in peak season, and far more service jobs than there are people willing to serve.

At our end of the commute, in Lake County, where Leadville is the only town, all the mines have shut down, other than a few mom-and-pop operations. Our end is a busted town, and a Superfund site, where the mess of the early mining rushes is being cleaned up. Our historic brick buildings, artifacts of the mining era, hold only feeble pulses of life. Our swimming pool is broken and dry. Our community survives in pieces, with two out of three workers commuting to the resort counties.

Memories fade and die off, but there are still enough of us ex-miners left to pose the questions: Was our community better off in the mining era, or is it better now as a colony of the New West recreation and lifestyle economy? And if we're not better off now, who is to blame?

Mining has a reputation for booms and busts and tearing up the landscape, but that's only part of the story here.

There would be no town here at all, if not for mining. Built at the nosebleed altitude of 10,152 feet, close to Colorado's tallest peaks, Leadville boasts of being the nation's highest incorporated town. The cold and snow can seem ruthless, and just breathing feels like work. It took the powerful draw of minerals to pull people here.

When mining began 140 years ago, at first there were many precipitous ups and downs, as early miners chased gold and silver, zinc and lead. Even amid the chaos, though, historic Leadville showed huge vitality. Three Colorado governors and two Denver mayors started building their economic and political fortunes here, along with business dynasties that led to the Guggenheim art museum and the May department store chain.

None of Leadville's legendary 19th century gold and silver booms ever matched molybdenum's long-term prosperity. When a mountain of moly was discovered, and the mineral became essential as a hardener of steel during World War I, the Climax Molybdenum Company took over the mountain in 1919. Up through the 1970s, the Climax Mine had only one layoff, a temporary idling of only 50 workers.

Miners at first cursed the Climax diggings as "that hellhole near the sky," and 81 died on the job over the years, mostly in underground accidents. But miners gained leverage by organizing union locals in 1944, and they pushed for improvements and benefits. While Climax extracted an incredible $4 billion in molybdenum ore, it returned $1 billion in cumulative wages to a total of 60,000 people - not only hard laborers, but also a dozen kinds of engineers, scientists, technicians, doctors, nurses and other professionals. In the Climax heyday, Lake County had by far the highest per capita income of any rural Colorado county.

The mine also supported all kinds of government services by paying the great majority of property taxes in the county, and it could be counted on to donate to causes such as Little League and Boy and Girl Scouts. If you avoided the riffraff of transient miners, tough bars, and a wide-open whorehouse that stayed in business until 1974, Leadville in the Climax era was a fine place to live and to raise families.

The mine was especially good to education. The taxes and bonds it floated built public schools and founded the local campus of Colorado Mountain College in 1967. Climax kicked off every school year with a banquet for teachers and administrators. And over a 25-year span, the mine contributed $1 million to 50 Lake County High School seniors for full college scholarships. So Lake County also topped rural Colorado counties in terms of the percentage of seniors who went on to four-year colleges.

Climax mine managers "treated their people really well, and they gave back to this community, abundantly," says Jim Morrison, a fifth-generation Leadville miner who recently served a term as a Lake County commissioner.

The Climax bust came suddenly in late 1981. Copper mines in the Third World discovered their ore bodies included molybdenum, and they had cheaper overhead, so the moly market crashed. Almost everyone at Climax was laid off within a year. Lake County lost half its population, including many young professionals who left to pursue careers elsewhere.

Liquor stores, car dealerships, shoe stores, gas stations, and the JC Penney and Skaggs Drug stores closed. Total assessed valuation of property in the county plunged from $278 million in 1981 to $39 million in 1984. To compensate, the county had to increase personal-property taxes, adding pressure on residents who tried to hang on. Hundreds of houses were put up for sale for half what they had been worth, and there were no buyers.

All of Lake County and Leadville moved to Climax's rhythms, so when Climax went down, everything did. Today, after a series of takeovers, the Climax Mine is owned by a Germany-based subsidiary of Phelps Dodge Corp., and the mine employs a skeleton crew of 17, who merely maintain the site.

Yet for all the ore that miners dragged out of the mountain, the landscape had not suffered that much from 80-some years of Climax operations. It was the early rushes for other minerals that left uncapped tailings heaps and lead residues right in town and toxic runoff into the Arkansas River headwaters. The Climax Mine showed that not all mines are toxic - it cut the tops off three drainages, and while those tailings leaked some pollution, they were stabilized, with the water coming off all sides clean today, thanks to Climax's treatment plants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, none of the pollution in Leadville's Superfund site has been from Climax.

Much of the West has experienced record population growth since Climax went down, but here in Lake County, our population has only crept back up to about 8,000 - still about 1,000 less than what it was in 1980. Even with that small population today, as many as 3,000 commuter vehicles head from Leadville north over the passes on an average day, according to the state transportation department.

The commuters work for the modern industry that has taken hold in neighboring Eagle County and Summit County. Over there, first the Breckenridge ski resort opened in 1961, then Vail resort in 1962, Keystone resort in 1970, Copper Mountain in 1973, and Beaver Creek in 1980.

The resort counties rode the upward demographics of the Baby Boomers, outdoor recreation and tourism, the stock market, and the SUV wagon trains of the migrating middle and upper classes. Those counties also have the advantage of a more livable altitude, and they are more accessible to the wider world, strung along the Interstate 70 corridor, an easy drive from Denver and its airport.

The two resort counties now attract 6 million skier visits per winter, and they've gone year-round, offering golf and other unfrozen fun. Both were among the top counties in the nation for growth during the 1990s. They're up to 65,000 residents total, with $2.2 billion of annual personal income - flush, compared to Lake County's meager $172 million.

Two multinational resort companies - Vail Resorts Inc. and Intrawest - own the downhill action there. But they don't pay their service workers much. Roll together all the New West businesses - the theme restaurants, hotels, busy stores, Starbucks coffee shops, even the construction companies * and they pay workers maybe $8 an hour to start, about a fifth of what the Climax Mine paid its laborers, adjusted for inflation over the years.

The lack of unions in the service industry is one reason for lower pay (HCN, 4/24/00: At your service). A supply of immigrants looking for any work further reduces any chance for leverage on the bosses. The New West workers have no power, and struggle just to survive, often taking on two jobs apiece. They have a hard time just finding a place to live, and though businesses and local governments build affordable housing, it's never enough - there's a perpetual shortage of housing the workers can afford.

So thousands of them land here in Leadville, in tenuous neighborhoods like the Mountain View Trailer Park, which straddles one commuter route, Highway 24. A trailer in Mountain View rents for one-third of what a Vail condo rents for. Almost every adult living along the dusty lanes of Mountain View was born in Mexico or farther south and spends at least two hours a day commuting to and from the resort counties.

Payday is no longer anything special in Leadville, except for the post office crowd buying international money orders to send to family back home.

People in our community even have to drive over the passes just to shop for shoes, shirts and other basic necessities Ð paying sales taxes in Wal-Mart and the other new, alluring big-box stores, the factory-outlet malls.

The resort counties get a cheap workforce, plus sales taxes and other benefits, but they return little to Leadville and Lake County. Proposals to share the wealth of taxes and revenues in the resort counties with poor Lake County have been shot down again and again in the state Legislature and abandoned by the regional planning group that includes all three counties. Some buses run to Leadville to pick up workers, and occasionally, the resort counties volunteer to send a few dollars toward our community needs. But for the most part, we are invisible to the resort counties.

Yet our community has to pay many costs associated with the commuters. When the commuters and their families need medical care, they use our clinic and hospital, but often they lack insurance, so they leave bills unpaid. When their kids go to school or have problems, when they need assistance with heating bills or food stamps or other government or social services, they ask for it here, where money is tight for everyone.

Attitudes among the leaders of the resort counties can be summed up by Summit County Commissioner Bill Wallace. He knows that schools in Leadville are in crisis, with one junior high closed, one elementary school downsized, and the rest crowded and in need of roof patching and other repairs. Total enrollment in our school district is about 1,200 students, less than half what it was in the heyday, and almost one-fourth of the students are now native Spanish speakers. All our school bond issues have failed since the Climax Mine closed. But Wallace says, "I don't know that's Summit and Eagle counties' fault, that the people in Lake County don't value education more."

It's always been tough to live here, but now it can seem extra tough. Among the key people moving away recently are the head of the chamber of commerce, the CEO of the hospital, both top editors and many reporters at the two local newspapers, the dean of the college, the superintendent of public schools and all the school principals.

What was once the top rural school system now has the state's highest high school dropout rate. Strapped for cash, the Lake County School District can't attract enough teachers to cope with the linguistic and cultural problems. A teacher starting in Lake County earns less than $24,000, while a teacher in the resort counties can start at $30,000.

"I have a (Spanish-speaking) tenth- grader in my caseload reading at a first-grade level," says Nancy Abila, one of four Lake County social services workers who counsel troubled kids. "We're not providing the proper education."

Trouble in the schools is aggravated by Leadville's growing racial fragmentation. Hispanics first settled in Leadville in num-bers in 1917, and for many years, the mine was a unifier - many Hispanics filled key jobs at the mine, paid on a fixed scale, the same as the Anglos. During the 1990s, though, an independent subculture sprang up. The percentage of Hispanic residents in Lake County doubled, to 36 percent; if we could count all the undocumented workers, it would be higher. The new subculture speaks only Spanish, has its own stores and restaurants, and interacts little with the rest of Leadville.

Even with their dramatic increase in numbers, no Hispanics have been elected to positions of power in county or town government recently. "A lot of them come from small villages in Mexico, and down there in those villages, nobody gets politically involved. They don't want any trouble," says JŽsus Quintana, owner of La Raza, a small mercantile in Leadville.

Quintana, a Mexican native who used to work construction in the resorts, says he'd like to help develop some Hispanic leadership in Leadville, "but I don't think I would find any support. I think I would be wasting my time. Most of the (Hispanic commuters), they have their minds set on just coming to sleep in Leadville. People are really tired, and the last thing they want is to find themselves caught up in something."

Whether Hispanic or Anglo, the commuters don't have the time to attend planning sessions, county commission and city council meetings and all the other community events. At a recent school ceremony where 100 kids received awards, only six parents were present.

Leadville's politics, meanwhile, have disintegrated into small warring camps. Even the old-timers don't agree on how to face the future - some merely wait for mining magically to return, while others like the bust for its peace and quiet.

Shouting, finger-pointing, intimidation, accusations of mismanagement, internal investigations and conspiracy theories have dominated Lake County government meetings for several years. There have been no less than six efforts to recall high-ranking county officials; one succeeded in replacing the sheriff.

The Leadville City Council ostensibly fell under control of the anti-government party - four of seven council members declared allegiance to the Libertarian Party. That lasted about a year, until one decided a few months ago he is no longer officially Libertarian, and another resigned.

Gone are the days when Leadville produced Colorado governors and Denver mayors.

Nothing that's alive stands still. Our situation is not entirely bleak. We see an increasing trickle of tourists who don't want the glitter of resort country, and a few eccentric newcomers settle here. They and some locals see the qualities on which we might build a future: our history, the beauty of the highest peaks, and high-altitude chic.

Really, our assets make an impressive list.

The 16-square-mile Superfund site raised a storm of local anger when it was designated in 1983, but the emotions have calmed. With several federal agencies involved, water from the site is being cleaned by two more water treatment plants and the tailings are being tended.

We have a National Historic Landmark spreading over 70 blocks, a historic mining district and several mining museums.

The Colorado Mountain College campus, with 40 faculty and staff, attracts a couple hundred full-time students and 800 part-timers, offering degrees in fields such as natural resource management and ski area operation.

Colorado Outward Bound School, based here since 1976, has expanded its holdings to 635 acres with dorms and dining hall, attracting 700 to 1,000 students per year.

We have a small day-use ski hill, Ski Cooper, and probably the nation's toughest sporting event - an ultramarathon stretching 100 miles on trails rising to 12,600 feet in elevation, drawing fanatical runners from around the world.

Among the signs of recent progress are the Boomtown Brewpub, opened about four years ago, and a sprinkling of new subdivisions with quality housing for the middle class.

Attempts to attract more tourists and middle-class newcomers have brought about the creation of more open space and trails.

And we have human assets: The people who stuck it out here have grit, and the newcomers share that strength of character.

But we still have to overcome the natural drawbacks. We're still remote, defined by winter, our air thinner than in any other town. The U.S. Air Force recommends that pilots wear oxygen masks when flying above 10,000 feet, and we're higher than that.

And even with a string of economic development consultants, it's still difficult for us to agree on how to make progress. Proposals have been floated, and shot down, for a prison, a machine gun factory, an expanded base area at Ski Cooper, and an industrial park.

Leadville Mayor Chet Gaede wants to refurbish the historic buildings along Harrison Avenue and attract high-dollar tourism - a long shot worth trying - but he's frustrated by a lack of community consensus.

"If you're going to do something with government, it will take you 10 years to get it done, and we can't get past year two on a project," the mayor says.

The latest community planning process may provide a nudge, but many Leadville residents remain bitter, resigned to a future that will always be overshadowed by their glorious past.

It's tempting to blame the resorts and their counties, the wealth they have, and their stinginess in not sharing it with us. After all, they sell the nation's most expensive ski-lift tickets - $71 per day at Vail. They ought to be able to spare a few dollars for the impacts over here, and help get us up to speed in the New West.

But we've had 20 years to adapt to the bust and make a future, and so far, mostly we haven't been able to get out of first gear.

All prosperity comes with a price. Our complete dependence on a single industry and a single company left no options once the company was gone. Leadville was a one-note town, a town that didn't need new ideas or new people, unless they had to do with mining. Comfortable in our isolation, even in the Climax heyday, Leadville was decades behind in mainstream culture and style.

We also made the mistake of relying on the Climax Mine for 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. We have been forced to learn that, without the Climax Mine, we have to work hard just to find out what we have in common and embrace it.

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, even the Three Stooges could have run things successfully during the Climax years. That kind of prosperity did not breed leaders. It was the early chaos of wide-open competition that spawned governors and tycoons.

Leadville never really had control of anything. With Climax running the show for so long, Leadville had no reason to develop the skills necessary to take charge, to think creatively, to compete and to plot its own course. Since Climax went down, the lack of those skills has been the biggest problem.

Given the circumstances, Leadville has done the best it could. The West's legions of ghost towns show that successful economic transition and continued prosperity are not always possible. At least Leadville isn't a ghost town. We're hanging on. That's all we've been prepared to do.

Steve Voynick lives near Leadville in Lake County. The former miner is the author of 10 books, including Climax: The History of Colorado's Climax Molybdenum Mine. Ray Ring, HCN's editor in the field, contributed to this essay, as did Hal Clifford, a freelance writer based in Telluride, Colorado.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- “They want the workers to be invisible”

- Open space initiative offers hope


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