Thirty years ago ARCO killed Anaconda, Montana, but it’s still there
Kill a person and you’ll go to jail for life. Kill an entire town and, well, it’s a different story. Today is the anniversary of just such a crime.
Thirty years ago oil conglomerate Atlantic Richfield Company drove a knife into the side of Anaconda, Montana–my hometown. I wasn’t alive to see the looks on people’s faces that day, but the look has never fully left. Twelve-hundred people lost their jobs, and the town lost a lifeline.
That’s not something that goes away, maybe ever.
In my mind Anaconda hearkens back to a different America, one that fueled an industrial boom and a daunting suburban sprawl––company people in a company town. You see it everywhere: Flint, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey. The cookie-cutter homes lining the cookie-cutter streets, now slowly decaying as those better days recede further into the past. These were places where guys who couldn’t turn out court briefs, but could turn a wrenches, were welcome; a place where collars were bluer than any nearby water. Conjure to mind your favorite Norman Rockwell… that was Anaconda. It is a perfect representation of the 1950s Pop Culture zeitgeist.
After the Washoe Smelter closed there came a mass exodus of desperate people who took to the road looking for a future in a crumbling American economy (sound familiar?), and a changing world they were no longer meant for. Conjure if you will another stark American image: The Grapes of Wrath.
Those who stayed behind gobbled up what jobs they could to keep themselves going, holding out hope for more jobs that never have returned in quite the fashion everyone was hoping for.
Deer Lodge County lost 66 percent of it’s tax base in 1980, and recovery has been long and hard, and not entire. I remember when my Dad, who until recently worked as a CNA at Montana State Hospital, got a pay raise in 1994 and announced that he was finally making what he did when he worked on the Smelter in 1978. That’s a tough show to watch, and a tough reality to grow up in.
If prosperity was trickling down during the 80s and 90s, Anaconda was nowhere near the faucet. Makes one wonder what Reagan was thinking when he proclaimed it Morning in America back in 1984. Maybe it was morning somewhere – like on Michael Eisner’s yacht – but in Anaconda, Montana it was night, and a cloudy one at that.
The Anaconda I grew up in had too many boarded up buildings to count. Every year there seemed to be more, and it was depressing to say the least. I remember watching people start businesses, do good for about six months, and then crash. That’s about normal most places––some things stay, some things go. But in a town with so little, every failure hurt in a personal way. After someone would close shop you’d hear everyone talk about how often they’d gone there, when really they hadn’t or the business would have survived.
And the drinking. Man, if anyone was prospering at that time it was bar owners (at least the ones not drinking their own product). And casinos were big too. It’s truly strange how poverty does that, leads to so many trying to forget it, and so many others trying to win it all back.
There were few places to shop in Anaconda so once a month we’d pile in to my Dad’s Chevy Blazer and go to Butte, another victim of ARCO, where we’d shop at the few places we could afford (K-Mart mostly). This wasn’t just my life, it was the town’s. No one was doing all that good. (Maybe the DUI attorneys.)
I left home in 2003, only returning for a few summers during which I workedbriefly for The Montana Standard, and at Montana State Hospital, a place where I think most people end up working at one time or another because it’s steady work and the benefits are good. When I left that summer following high school there were barely any jobs, no real estate market to speak of, three of my classmates had kids, and one was ready to go to prison. None of this was out of the ordinary.
For 23 years, that had been the speed of things. And amazingly, that year things were actually better.
My wife Alisia and I searched for venues for our wedding last year, everywhere from the Tarkio Lodge to a barn outside of Bozeman where they filmed part of The Horse Whisperer. We finally settled on a place near Anaconda because we could afford it. Immediately I got worried. What would my future in-laws think as they drove past the Opportunity Ponds, or the massive man made mountain of arsenic and silica affectionately called “slag”?
I sat down to write a short essay selling my town on its history–a time when it was (to continue Reagan’s awful metaphor) Noon in Anaconda.
I reprint it here to give perspective:
She’s small and only a shadow of her former self, but for a hundred years Anaconda, Montana helped shape the industry, politics, and history of the world.
Founded in the late 19th century by copper barren, and mining tycoon Marcus Daly, Anaconda is Montana’s ninth largest city––a feat accomplished with less than ten thousand people. Daly named the city after the silver mine that made him rich: The Anaconda (thus named for the North’s plan to destroy the South).
Anaconda was the second cog in Daly’s empire. Ore taken from mines in Butte arrived by rail at a smelting plant here in Anaconda – the northern side of the Old Works Golf Course is littered with copper-stained ruins from this operation. By the turn of the century the factory produced the majority of America’s copper–used for this new-fangled thing called “electricity”–and was woefully inadequate (also, more cynically, the townspeople and workers were tired of excessive smoke seeping into the city).
On the southeast side of the valley you’ll see another relic: a massive chimney known as The Stack. It stands 585 feet high, large enough to fit the Washington Monument inside. Daly oversaw the design, but died before one of the most lasting images of America’s industrial past was finished in 1919. By this point the Anaconda Copper Mining Company had been absorbed by Amalgamated Copper Mining–owned by a little known company called Standard Oil.
To give an idea of Anaconda’s copper market dominance after 1920, the vast majority of wires in government buildings, vehicles or bombs–including those that started the Cold War, and landed a man on the moon–and every home in America, came from processed copper shipped from Anaconda. To sate demand the company owned mines all over the world, including The Chuquicamata Copper Mine, the nation of Chile’s then primary source of wealth.
In 1952 an Argentine med student traveled South America by motorcycle. He visited the Chuquicamata and was infuriated. Chileans worked the mine, died in the mine, but did not own the mine. Anaconda did. The man called it, “imperialist gringo domination.” Some biographers point to this as one of the experiences that turned Che Guevara into the iconic Marxist rebel whose writings inspired revolution throughout Latin America–including that in Chile, which in 1969 nationalized its copper mines, dealing a harsh blow to Anaconda.
Over the following decade copper prices fell, and by 1979 the Atlantic Richfield Company (itself a former Standard Oil entity) announced plans to shut down the Smelter. By 1981 the final workers, those who demolished all buildings surrounding the Stack, clocked out a final time, ending a century of industry. All that was left was a history of environmental abuse and mistreatment that will take reclamation workers at least another fifty years to repair, if not longer.
But even without the fires of industry still burning, the town remains, a reminder of the excess of big business, but also as a lesson that history is not the exclusive domain of larger-than-life figures, and sprawling cities.
Small towns hidden between mountains can cast long shadows as well.
Maybe a third read that at the wedding, and not once did anyone ask me about the pollution (except those who I’d previously told about the EPA Superfund site). They all thought it was a nice town; little, but nice.
Where as I’d grown up beneath the Stack, and the cloud of memories of when everyone had a good job, at a good wage, these people were like kids. They only saw the good in my former little burg, the rolling hillsides that now feature grass and trees, the clean water that’s okay to drink, and the charm that glazes over so much past ill (Example: The golf course covering the old dump).
All I could focus on was the rapid slide into obscurity that shook my home’s confidence and hope, they could only see that things were getting better. Sometime after I’d left home, things had started to look up.
In Anaconda today people are working, families are being raised, schools are still in session and the Washoe Theater – the single most wonderful place you will ever see a film – still shows a new movie every week. For the first time in my life it looks like there are businesses opening, and staying open. People are building new things. Fewer buildings require boards over windows. A month ago my Mom called me from some festival going on downtown––the slow stretches of road called Park and Commercial. I could hear people laughing, and a band playing. These moments were rare when I was a kid. Mom says they happen every week now.When I lived there people would get together, and they’d drink and lament the passing of the past. People were stuck there.
Today, the 66 percent mentioned above is not back as strong as before, but it’s better than in 1985 when I was born, or even 2003 when I left. I could remain bitter, as many do beneath that current of optimism in Anaconda. After all, my town was raped by ARCO and left dead in the gutter as they fought with the feds over what “clean up” really meant.
So I could harp on how British Petroleum, which bought out ARCO’s assets in Anaconda, is a piece of shit company that will leave the Gulf the same mess it would like to leave sections of my hometown. I could rally against corporate greed, or polluters that put my family in poverty. I could throw an unlikely curve and complain about environmentalists who spurned the regulations that drove up costs that led to… yadda yadda yadda.
What good does that do?
Anaconda, Montana as a company town and western industrial empire crumpled 30 years ago. It died a terrible, tragic death. But among the slag heaps and recovering ecosystem, a new Anaconda has grown up. It’s nothing like it’s former self, but it functions. And you can buy tofu there, which is odd
My home town’s continued existence is the middle finger to every greedy profiteer, or Gordon Gecko wannabe.
In 2003 my brother and I snuck up to the Stack. We stood at the base of it, for the first time taking in just how big it really is, 585 feet looking so small from the city below. When we stood in the middle of it and looked up, I could just see part of the blue sky poking in through the top.
I didn’t realize that others were seeing it too.
When writing this up I thought a lot about what Springsteen song really captures my hometown, because if ever a song writer could capture Anaconda, it’s The Boss.
This song says it all: