Climax: The Mine, The Legend

black and white photo of Climax Colorado
Climax Molybdenum Mine, circa 1950s.

My mother used to kid my father about growing up in Climax, Colorado. The double-entendre found a home in her sense of humor.

My grandparents and father moved to Climax in 1948, after my grandfather graduated from the University of Colorado. The war had interrupted his college career. Registered for the draft in October, 1940, he was drafted in March, 1941 and discharged in December, 1945.

Climax existed for one reason only: molybdenum. Molybdenum is a rarely occurring mineral used to strengthen steel. In the United States, the largest deposits of the mineral exist in one place only: Climax, Colorado.

When the mine was active and thriving in the 1950s, Climax was the town of highest elevation in North America. Only people living in the Andes Mountains in South America lived at higher elevations.

Situated near Fremont Pass at an elevation of 11,318 feet above sea level, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad crews named the summit near Fremont Pass “Climax.” The crews called the summit site “Climax” in “recognition of Colorado’s first narrow-gauge railroad crossing of the Continental Divide.” (Stephen M. Voynick, Climax: The History of Colorado’s Molybdenum Mine, page 5).

Climax’s high altitude intimated most people. Snowfall averaged 300 inches per year at Climax. Winter avalanches often blocked the lines for days and sometimes swept lines off the tracks.  its high altitude intimidated just about everyone.

Despite listing Climax as a regular station on the South Park line, DSP&P passengers referred to  Climax as the “station where nobody gets on and nobody gets off.”

Many people had gotten off and stayed at Climax by the 1950s. Like much of the American economy Climax thrived in the immediate post-war years. Wages were higher than the blue-collar average, and contract miners earned $11,000 a year, about $103,000 annually in 2018 dollars.

My grandfather initially worked at Harvard University’s High-Altitude Observatory. My grandparents and father lived in the house attached to the Observatory for a number of years.

Climax Mining Corporation

Later my grandfather worked in the Publicity Department of Climax Mining Corporation. Much of his work captured miners and mining operations. My grandmother worked in the accounting and credit union departments.

Miners at Climax Mine.

Life magazine and network television news programs featured the Climax community as arguably the best company town ever built. Max Schott Elementary School taught the town’s children, including my father, who began attending in the second grade.

Climax company management created two all expenses paid college scholarships, one for a Climax resident and one for a non-Climax resident. In 1959 my father won the scholarship, which he used to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The town also boasted a 200-seat theater and a dedicated ski area that included night skiing, and of course, like every other mining town across America, a company store.

Climax’s circumstances changed dramatically from 1955 onward. In 1958 Climax Mining Company merged with American Metals Company, forming American Metals Climax.

By 1964, the year I was born, the Climax company town had been dismantled. What homes could be moved had been trucked down Highway 91 to West Park, Leadville, Colorado. The rest of the structures, including Max Schott school and the theater, were destroyed.

The now open space made way for increased mining production by American Metals Climax. The changes Climax faced foisted poignant anxiety on my family. My grandfather never again found an employer willing to retain him until retirement. From the time I was born until his death in 1980 four different companies employed him in two different states. 

The perch of many decades casts him as a noble man for me, working to stay working, competing for jobs as a sad 50 plus-year-old with men half his age, uprooting his daughters to cast their fates in new schools with new rules and new mean girls.

Crushing blows knocked him down, surely but he got back up, and picked up his Leica, a bulwark against the dying of the light.

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