Climax Goes to War

Climax Molybdenum Mine achieved its first major financial success selling the moly alloy to the military during World War I. 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 and hundreds of thousands of deaths from the now infamous outbreak of influenza.

During the inter-war period, Climax mine struggled to find business. Henry Ford continued to prefer his carbon-steel alloys over molybdenum because the carbon-steel alloy was cheaper to manufacture, though it added weight to the car.

But luck came to Climax in the form of C. H. Wills, an engineer instrumental in the success of the Ford Model T, who 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 to build a stronger, faster automobile.

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

C. H. Wills

Wills engineered an elegant, stylish, high performing vehicle only the rich could afford. At $3,000 (inflation adjusted equivalent equals $41,893) the average Joe wasn’t going to forego an affordable for car with its carbon-steel components for the lighter, moly-laden Grey Goose.

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 — were bombing civilian populations using airplanes hardened with Climax moly. Considering two of the three big customers were America’s enemies, President Roosevelt had to do something.

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)

The embargo hurt Climax’s business for awhile, until the slow increase in arms production in the United States added to Climax’s bottom line.

Miners at Climax Mine.

World War II propelled the fortunes of Climax mine, a very unique mine in American industry. At the time, Molybdenum was the only metal provided by a single source for the world’s supply. Once American cut off supplying Japan and Germany, they had to return to using carbon-steel alloys for their armaments, which, again, while cheaper, wasn’t nearly as strong as moly in hardening steel.

When the United States declared war on Japan and Germany, Roosevelt directed American industries be placed under the direction of the War Production Board under the direct supervision of Brigadier General Paul B. Clemens.

The Board designated Climax as America’s highest operating priority mine. Moly-toughed steels were vital to American victories. Miners were already extracted moly in extraordinary amounts before the declaration of war, but the War Production Board demanded the mine increase production from 25 million pounds in 1941 to 37 million pounds in 1942.

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

The first was the design of block cave mining itself.

Block cave mining is used to extract hard ore from mines. Sometimes called closed-pit mining, miners create into the rock beneath the ore body, forcing the cut rock to fall to conveyor belts or trains beneath it, a system miners call haulage.

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

Now the miners can get closer to the ore body to drill holes above the exposed ore body, inserting and detonating explosives, causing cracks or stress in the ore body.

Eventually over time, large chunks of 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.

In 1942 the most productive level at Climax mine, the area producing the most ore through detonating explosives and letting the ore fall into the train buggies, was the Phillipson Level. Mine staff were stressing this level at capacity when the War Board demanded more.

Loading, hauling and dumping a level already at its design capacity threatened a catastrophic collapse, rendering the level inaccessible and inoperable.

If that happened, the mine would fail to meet War Board’s requirements. Management found improvements in hauling, instituting round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week hauls every 9 minutes. This solution didn’t increase the number of detonations to the level but rather found efficiencies in how they extracted the ore chunks from the level.

The second problem Climax face was lack of qualified, hard working employees. In the growing robust war economy, Camp Hale, home to the Tenth Mountain Division, offered better paying work for a Climax employee.

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

At Camp Hale the Army Corp of Engineers offered Climax employees “outdoor summer work, good pay and work that was much safer than Climax underground.” (Voynick, page 172).

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 molybdenum a month.

The War Production Board assisted with hiring by closing all gold mines, directing the separated miners to production of iron, coal, base and alloying metals. 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 Phillipson Level. 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. (Voynick, page 173)

In a last ditch effort exposing 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.

These men had no option but to work at Climax.

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.”

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


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