The History of Colorado’s Climax Mine, by Steve Voynick

Review by Ed Quillen

Mining – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Climax – The History of Colorado’s Climax Molybdenum Mine
by Stephen M. Voynick
published in 1996 by Mountain Press Publishing Co.
ISBN 0-87842-354-0

Almost at timberline, 11,318 feet above the tides at the top of Frémont Pass, Climax was much more than a mine. For many years, Climax was also a town, complete with post office, general store, high school, a ski run, and the first cable-TV system in Colorado.

Climax was a railroad station along one of the storied lines in a region that abounds in rail lore. Climax was a high-security tightly guarded defense plant deemed essential to Allied victory in World War II, and the site of a top-secret solar-flare observatory that determined the timing of Allied invasions.

Climax was a value-added brand name for the leading edge in metallurgy. It was a mainstay of Lake County’s assessed valuation and a provider of 3,000 steady, high-paying jobs with good fringe benefits.

Across much of Central Colorado for several generations, Climax was a way of life.

And Climax was of course a mine, at times the largest underground mine in the world, a huge industrial complex that sat within shooting, if not spitting, distance of wilderness. Every day the mine chewed away at Bartlett Mountain, moving trainloads of rock, grinding the boulders to dust, all to produce molybdenum, an obscure metal that most people had trouble pronouncing, let alone imagining a use for.

So there’s a big and varied story behind Climax, and though various pieces of it have circulated for years, the whole seems bigger than the sum of its parts.

Molybdenum, in its sulfide form found in nature, is dark and slippery, like lead or graphite. In fact, that’s what the prospectors thought they had in 1879 as they pressed up Frémont Pass in the hopes of finding extensions of the rich silver ores of Leadville.

Instead, they found a mountain of stuff that baffled assayers. Once it was identified, there remained a bigger question — of what possible use was it?

World War I answered that question — the German Krupp works added small amounts to steel, producing tough armor and superior cannons.

But with the Armistice in 1918, that market evaporated, and it fell upon Brainerd Phillipson, a young chemist, to invent uses for molybdenum and then find customers in the steel and auto industries.

He did, and the mules, soon replaced by electric locomotives, began to move rock at the moribund Climax Mine. In the process, Phillipson invented modern mining.

The mines of gold- and silver-rush days had followed small veins of rich ore. Like most modern mines, Climax was a big deposit of low-grade ore; the company had to invent ways to break and move rock on a scale never before attempted.

A company town took root, thriving despite the Great Depression, and Voynick’s narrative frequently and smoothly shifts from the technical to the social:

“Since early electric refrigerators were still troublesome and expensive, Climax families relied instead on `Okie iceboxes,’ wooden powder boxes mounted outside kitchen windows. Experienced Climax homemakers preferred DuPont powder boxes to the Hercules type because of their sturdier construction. Temperature control meant opening the kitchen window just enough to allow the right amount of warm air to exhaust into the box.”

One of those “experienced Climax homemakers,” Eleanor Wadsworth, was inspired to poetic parody (to the tune of “Shortnin’ Bread”) by the challenges of cooking at that altitude:

“Roll out the biscuits, cut ’em out neat,

“Put ’em in the oven with plenty of heat,

“Call out the hoist, the bulldozer, too,

“Can’t lift ’em out when they’re through.”

Climax stayed busy during the Depression because it was part of a global economy — most of its molybdenum was exported to Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt asked company president Max Schott to observe a “moral embargo.” Schott complied, but in return, Roosevelt promised that the War Department would consider increasing its use of moly-hardened steel in arms and armor.

Quite a story, and then there’s the post-war adjustment, the merger with American Metals, the closing of the company town, the major growth in the 1970s, and the almost overnight collapse at the beginning of the ’80s as Climax lost control of a market it had once known how to dominate.

Climax is a complex story because it covers so many fields. On the technical side, it includes mining and milling methods, and metallurgy. There’s a political angle with the dispute between Lake and Summit counties about the county line. There’s industrial rivalry for control of Bartlett Mountain, along with high finance and international trade.

Voynick could have left it at that and produced a pretty good book, covering the story from Paleozoic sediments to 1990. But he makes it an excellent book by finding and telling so many people stories, reminding us that the Climax of yore was not merely a matter of tonnage and recovery statistics.

There was Doc Sloan, who never made more than $5 a day in his life, getting $120,000 on retirement because he had unknowingly “purchased” Climax stock when he thought he was just saving his pay in the company safe.

Or Tex Romig, a mine superintendent who patrolled the premises on a Harley-Davidson and nearly got shot by a shepherd whose flock then scattered across the mine surface. The company ended up paying $2 apiece, rather than round them up, and mutton — all sheep were to be shot on sight — became a fixture of the boarding-house menu.

Or Patti Wood, the fourth woman to be hired for underground work after equal employment opportunity became the law in 1972: “Single mothers couldn’t raise kids on a clerk’s pay. When mine jobs opened up to women, we had to take them. Some of the older hands were still superstitious about women being `bad for the rock’ and all that bull, but our real problem was the younger men…. I wasn’t there two weeks before they tied me to a timber. Once, they even set my clothes afire. They tried their best to intimidate us all shift. Do you know how we survived? By being just as damned tough and ornery as they were.”

Voynick’s research was funded by a grant from Cyprus Climax, today’s corporate owner of the mothballed mine, and he had full access to company records.

Sometimes that sort of arrangement results in a sanitized history extolling the wisdom of the corporate founders, but it didn’t happen in this book.

Corporate miscalculations receive their just due, ranging from the abominable safety record in early years, through the $20 million oxide plant that didn’t work, clear to the “cash cow” management that financed far-flung corporate expansion but left the company’s core business vulnerable.

This is about as complete as a book could get — I couldn’t think of any Climax stories I’ve heard that weren’t addressed somewhere in Climax — and despite the daunting technical nature of some of its subject matter, it’s generally quite readable. It is also copiously illustrated with dozens of photos.

Granted, I’m not the most objective reviewer here. We thought so highly of Climax in progress that we published a condensation in Colorado Central (November and December, 1994) — but the full book was even better than I thought it would be. To put it another way, this will simplify Christmas shopping this winter.

If you were around during the Shining Times when Climax was hiring 100 men a week and all those jobs up the hill seemed eternal, you need to read Climax to find out why the jobs vanished. If you moved here recently and you wonder whether any of those Climax tales you’ve heard might be true, this is the place to find out. And if you just want some good reading, a rags to riches to rags epic that just happens to be true, well, Climax is one hell of a story, told thoroughly and told well.

— E.Q.