Skip to content

The Big Picture

September 12, 2010

Panorama of Anaconda, Montana

Yesterday I took a long walk in the hills above Anaconda, Montana, the closest town to me, about 15 miles from my cabin. Anaconda was founded in the late 1800s by copper king Marcus Daly and named after his Anaconda Copper Mining Company, in turned named after his Anaconda mine in Butte, and for years was home to the largest copper smelter on earth. This is where copper from the mines in Butte, 26 miles away, was processed.

There were several smelters, actually, progressively bigger, one replacing the other as the company grew. First came the Old Works, on the north side of the valley, itself divided into the Lower Works, which came first, and then the Upper Works, from which this photo was taken (click the pic for a larger view). Eventually both were abandoned and new smelter facilities were built on the south side of the valley. That was called the Washoe Smelter, and it operated from 1902 until 1980, when ARCO, which bought the Anaconda Company in 1977, shut it down. The smokestack in the distance at middle left is all that’s left of the Washoe Smelter complex. It’s the tallest brick masonry structure in the world at 585 feet. Anacondans fought to leave it standing when the whole complex was declared a Superfund site in 1983. It’s now a state park, but you can’t visit it because, well, it’s also a Superfund site.

The stack collected gas from various smelter operations and vented it into the sky, whence it settled on the Deer Lodge Valley below, its heavy arsenic content wilting crops and killing livestock, at least according to the farmers who sued the company in the early 1900s. The company accused the plaintiffs of trying to pick the smelter’s pockets, calling them “smoke farmers.” The company eventually bought out its litigious neighbors and carved out the community of Opportunity—five miles away, and obscured by the hill in the left foreground—as a (ahem…) garden community for retiring smelter workers.

The Washoe stack was just the last (and tallest) of half a dozen stacks that at one time or another marked these hilltops. At left in this picture you can see the ruins of a stone flue that funneled smelter gas to a now-toppled Upper Works stack that once stood on top of this hill. If you look closely you can see its bricks spilling down the hill’s right flank.

The greens in the lower foreground are part of the Old Works golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus as part of the remediation of the Old Works Superfund site. The black sand that forms the low plateau in the center, and that fills the course’s sand traps, is waste slag—an inert combination of iron and silica—from the smelters. There’s another mountain of the stuff to the lower left of the Washoe stack. It’s hard to tell from this perspective, but that pile of black slag is a mile and a half  long.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: