As part of our week in Breckenridge, we did a day trip to Leadville over Fremont Pass. This country figures in my life. My father grew up in Leadville, and I worked at the Climax Molybdenum mine one summer when in college. Breckenridge is low country, around 9600 feet. Leadville is over 10,000 feet in elevation, the highest incorporated city in the U.S. Climax is at the summit of Fremont Pass, 11,360 feet in elevation. Some years, it doesn’t snow in July.
Climax is at the foot of Bartlett Mountain, once one of the largest bodies of Molybdenum in the world. Moly is used in alloying steel and as a lubricant. Moly alloyed in steel makes it tougher, useful in high stress applications. It’s first big use was in gun barrels during WWI. Much of Bartlett Mountain is gone, hollowed out, crushed, had the metals removed, and the tailings dumped into a once beautiful glaciated valley. Common with most mining operations, Climax has gone through several boom-bust cycles, and is currently just limping along. Leadville is limping as well, still dependent on mining.
I worked at the Storke level, 300 feet down the mountain from the original portal and mill. I lived in a company hotel there. There was once a company town, but it went away as the milling operation took the land. The store and the beer joint were still there in the mid-1960’s.
I worked as a miner. Drill, shoot, and muck. That’s mining. The drill was a jack leg, a pneumatic rock drill with a leg attached to be extended as the drill hole got deeper. It was powered by compressed air, and had a water feed to keep dust down. Drill holes in the face, load them with explosive, shoot, then remove the broken rock (muck). I plan to go into the whole operation some time. I did it for the money, and I can now say I was a miner.
Leadville is down the pass. What a place. First gold, then a lot of silver, then bust as the silver market collapsed. Mining has always gone on, from small independent operations to massive developments supporting a fairly large town. My grandfather lived there for about twenty years as a railroader, a good Union job. Born in 1903, my dad grew up there until 1918 when the railroad went broke and the family moved to Grand Junction. Growing up, I heard lots of Leadville stories. I will tell some more sometime. If you go down the hill from the hotel on Harrison Avenue, the house at the bottom on the right is where my father grew up.
When we visited, we drove around and I bored everyone with Leadville stories. We ate at the Golden Burro, where I ate in the 1960’s, and went to the mining museum. If you have any interest in mining, that’s the place. Mostly, mining is taking metals and fuel from the earth and leaving a mess. Leadville has lots of messes. The worst ongoing mess is the water. As it comes out of the mines it is highly acidic and loaded with toxic metals in solution. It will have to be treated forever, at least in human terms. Mining built Colorado, and we will always deal with the legacy. Oh, what a mess we made.