It began as a faint hope: Prices for molybdenum were soaring thanks to demand in China. Meanwhile, the world's largest "moly" mine, which still contains a 30-year supply of the metal used in high-strength alloys, was just lying dormant here, waiting to be exploited.
Then, the mine's owner hinted at reopening last summer - a prospect that has kept the residents of America's highest-altitude city in suspense ever since. Today, as they await the results of an official study by Phelps Dodge Corp., which owns the Climax Molybdenum Mine, Leadville locals wonder whether the mine could return glory days to a town that epitomizes the boom-and-bust cycle of America's western frontier.
"Everybody's hoping it will open," says Howard Tritz, the county assessor, a fourth-generation Leadville resident, and a Climax employee for 30 years. "What we've heard is that it's not a matter of if they're going to open it, but when.... We're all anxious to see them start it up again."
Few towns can match Leadville's storied history. Once a contender for Colo- rado's capital, it was the source of Meyer Guggenheim's fortune, and a frequent host to Jesse James, Doc Holliday, Oscar Wilde, and Susan B. Anthony. When the silver market crashed, the town resorted to gold and zinc and, in 1917, molybdenum - a hot commodity during both world wars. Despite its wild fortunes, the town has proved to be as unsinkable as another famous resident, Molly Brown.
But these days, as snow swirls around the deserted Climax mine - a massive pit at the daunting height of 11,400 feet, which includes North America's largest underground mine - it's hard to believe it once employed more than 3,000 people and supplied some three-quarters of the world's molybdenum.
When the Climax slowed its operation in the 1980s, and closed it in 1987, it nearly destroyed the city of Leadville; property values and the town's population plummeted, and Leadville eventually morphed from a mining town into a brief tourist stop and bedroom community for ski-resort workers. The county's assessed value dropped from $276 million to a low of $39 million, according to Mr. Tritz, and its unemployment spiked.