It has been said that Butte, Montana is where the frontier intersected with the Industrial Age. If that’s true, then just down the road in Anaconda is where the Industrial Age built its monumental smoke stack.
No black/grey smoke pours from the old Anaconda Washoe smelter these days and the smelter jobs left along with the smoke. The smelter has been closed since 1980, but the history – and environmental legacy – remains, as does the stack. Taller than the Washington Monument and the largest free standing masonry structure in the world, the Anaconda stack still looms over the old smelter town as a constant reminder of what once ruled here – copper and the “Company,” as the Anaconda Mining Company was known.
Today, Anaconda is continuing to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation center and a tourism destination. The stack is a state park and on the National Historic Register. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works golf course is one of the best public courses in the country. Still, the history of the Industrial Age bumping up against the frontier oozes from the streets here. The Hibernians still have a hall, you can still buy fresh pasties and the high school team is called the Copperheads. Among a few spectacular historic homes, the houses once occupied by the smelter workers stand so close together the eaves overlap.
This past weekend was reunion weekend for some grads of what were once the two high schools in Anaconda. We had breakfast with a couple of the graduates of the Class of 1969. I asked one of them, now a resident of Southern California and wearing a USC tee shirt, when he had left Anaconda. “When I was 18 years old,” came his quick reply. In other words, as soon as he could get out of town.
Another charming fellow – with Anaconda in his blood and memory – quickly added that he had worked his last summer job before college at the smelter. “If you were going off to college,” he said, “they made sure you had a job at the smelter. They were good about that…they just didn’t tell you it might kill you.”
The closing of the Washoe Smelter didn’t kill Anaconda, as some had predicted. The environmental clean up continues, as do the memories of one of the most spectacular and most consequential chapters in the industrial development of the American West. Anaconda is worth a visit to see a survival story and an important piece of American and Western history.