Climax Moly Mine, America’s Mine

Climax Molybdenum Mine and the United States Military formed a long and productive partnership during the mine’s operation from 1909 to 1962. 

The Mine in Climax, Colorado achieved its first major financial success selling the moly alloy to the military during World War I. 

The moly alloy strengthen steel and other metals.

The alloy was used in the armor plate of the Renault “baby” tanks and the high-stress components of the legendary NC-4 Liberty aircraft engine.

The end of World War I brought a post-war depression.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths from the now infamous outbreak of influenza.

Henry Ford continued to prefer his carbon-steel alloys over molybdenum.

But luck came to Climax in the form of C. H. Wills.

Wills worked for Henry Ford and was instrumental in the success of the Ford Model T.

He left Ford to pursue greater engineering creativity.

He founded C. H. Wills and Company and quickly began designing what would later become the Wills Sainte Claire Model A-68, or the Grey Goose.

Wills opted to use molybdenum to hardened the steel.

“[E]very component of the engine, power train, frame and suspension system subject to even minimal stress consisted of molybdenum steel.”


Wills engineered an elegant, stylish, high performing vehicle

Except  only the rich could afford it.

At $3,000 (inflation adjusted equivalent equals $41,893) the average Joe wasn’t going to forego an affordable car with its carbon-steel components for the lighter, moly-laden Grey Goose.

The Grey Goose became a cooked goose and disappeared from the car market quickly. With it went Climax’s hopes for an American revival of its profits.

So foreign sales helped Climax Mine survive the depression of the the 1930s.

By 1940s all foreign powers purchasing molybdenum from Climax – Great Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan – were preparing for war.

Climax’s three biggest foreign customers — Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union — bombed civilian populations using airplanes hardened with Climax moly.

President Roosevelt intervened in Company business.

Franklin Roosevelt summoned Max Schott, then President of Climax, to Washington and requested a voluntary “moral embargo” of “war-related materials to nations then using aircraft to bomb civilian populations.” (Voynick, page 164)

Profits again took a dip.

But not for long.

The Climax mine offered the world the only source of molybdenum.

As the world’s sole supplier of moly, the increase in American war machine production benefited Climax and offset foreign sales drop.

Once Roosevelt declared war, Climax profit and production increased.

Roosevelt additionally directed that all industries vital to the American war effort be placed under the direction of the War Production Board.

The Board designated Climax as America’s highest operating priority mine.

Moly-toughed steels were vital to American victories. but increased production brought problems.

In early 1942 Max Schott received a notice from the War Production Board to increase production by 10,000,000 pounds, to 37,000,000 pounds per year.

The mine was already operating beyond capacity.

Two problems made increased production nearly impossible.

An example of ore being removed using the haulage system, taken after the war.

The first was the design of block cave mining itself.

Mine management confronted two problems as they attempted to meet this goal.

Block cave mining is used to extract hard ore from mines.

Sometimes called closed-pit mining, miners create an undercut beneath the ore body with haulage, such as conveyor belts, trucks or sometimes trains.

Miners then drill holes above the ore body, insert explosives and detonate them, causing cracks or stress in the ore body.

Over time, large chunks of the ore fall under its own weight into the haulage system.

The haulage system then removes the chunks to the surface, where mills remove the ore from the waste.

But undercutting an orebody can only work for so long.

Eventually the level containing the orebody could collapse.

Which is exactly the problem Schott faced with Roosevelt’s request — the stress on the orebody at they called the Phillipson Level.

Loading, hauling and dumping a block cave already at its capacity threatened to shorten the life of the level itself.

A catastrophic collapse could occur, rendering the level inaccessible and inoperable.

But the War Production Board demanded more moly immediately.

Management had to make the current level work.

Management found improvements in hauling, instituting round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week hauls every 9 minutes.

The second problem Climax faced was lack of qualified employees.

In the growing robust war economy, Camp Hale, home to the Tenth Mountain Division, offered better paying work  in a better, safer environment.

Camp Hale as it looked when U.S. troop trained there during World War II. Photo courtesy of Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum

Climax countered with a 50 cent raise but still lost men.

By the late spring of 1942 Climax suffered a net loss of employees.

In spite of negative hiring, Climax still continued to ship 4.2 million pounds of contained molybdenum a month.

Management directed that the highest grade ore be mined first, risking the delicate balance of the Phillipson level.

This prime ore would eventually disappear.

The lack of manpower would severely hamper Climax’s required goal.

The War Production Board came to the rescue of Climax’s staffing needs.

The War Production Board assisted with hiring by closing all gold mines, directing the separated miners to production of iron, coal, alloying metals such as molybdenum.

The Board also released 4,000 men from war service.

Climax gave 160 of these “soldier miners” the opportunity to experience life in the high-altitude town of Climax and work in the mine.

After a few days they could chose to stay or take their chances on the war front.

Twenty chose military combat.

The Board also shipped eight refugees from Japanese-held Mongolia.

Experienced in hard rock mining, they spoke not a word of English.

Some men had no option but to work at Climax.

In a last ditch effort that exposed the magnitude of personnel needed at home to build, forge and mine for the war effort, the War Department utilized  “borderline” deserters and men of questionable war value to assist with personnel needs.

Climax foremen, as advised by officers of the Seventh Service Command, greeted them with a short, boot-camp-style welcome.

“Men, I’m sure some of you would rather not be here, and maybe we’d rather not have you here. But Climax is your home for the duration of the war. So let’s make the best of it. Remember, if you quit, you’re a criminal, and they’re gonna hunt you down sooner or later. Until this war is over, the only way you legally down this hill is feet first.”

Stephen Voynick, Climax

Eight of these men died between 1942 and 1943 as a result of inexperience and excessive, ongoing, everyday production requirements.

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