Thirty years ago ARCO killed Anaconda, Montana, but it’s still there

By Duganz

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:

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  1. i hope everyone took the time to read every word of this and listen to that song. it is a poem.

  2. CFS

    Beautiful writing… No further comment needed.

  3. I have little to add, save this. I grew up in the Bitterroot, and remember clearly the day we heard of ARCO’s pull out. I blamed Republicants and Reagan, maybe incorrectly, I just don’t know. (He wasn’t even President yet, but we knew.) I just remember thinking that Butte-Silverbow was totally screwed and Anaconda, which I hated at the time (football, you know) was dead. It was the same pain I would feel some few years later when Champion International “merged” with Saint Regis Paper (and pulled out of Montana.) Eminent screwage, and nothing to be done.

    • I think blaming Reagan is fair. He made it clear during the 1980 campaign that he was going to be pro business in every way — look at what he did to the air traffic controllers.

      So ARCO gambled on it being okay in Reagan’s America, and they were right. It’s really too bad we’ve never had a true pro-labor President since those dark days.

  4. Matthew Koehler

    See also from today’s Indy:

    Lessons from Anaconda
    Smelter shutdown still resonates 30 years later
    By George Ochenski

    http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/lessons-from-anaconda/Content?oid=1308546

  5. T.BAKER

    I KNOW I WORK FOR AMBERLIGHT ANACONDA IN ATL.
    THEY DID THE SAME THING TO US NOT THE TOWN
    BUT ALL 300 PEOPLE WHEN THEY MOVE

  6. Jim Daly

    During the Soviet era, failed enterprises were kept on life support. It kept some people working at the expense of other workers in productive areas. The whole population was penalized to keep full employment. It didn’t work. It would not work here but at least in this country, alocation of assets is not in the hands of central planners. Yet. Creative distruction is a scary word. It must have been horrible to witness as a young man in your town. I mourn the death of Anaconda and Butte as you do. I honor its memory. You seem to think that Che had the answer. He did not. Millions of workers in the former Soviet Republic have told us that. Copper prices have never been higher. But very little is mined in the U.S. today. Do some research and find out why. Nice essay. Not a great study. Not surprsed that the auther is interested to tofu. Probably eats quiche also. Best Spyder

    • Nothing in this post says Che had the right idea. If you’re seeing that in this piece then you are misinterpreting me completely.

      The essay only referes to Che in a historical sense, connecting him to the copper industry changes that led to the Anaconda Smelter’s closure. It in no way praises him. How you saw that is beyond me.

      As for your dismissal of tofu and quiche, I guess you eat steak and scream ‘Merica as you crush Miller Light cans on your forehead. While that may be true, I have no way of knowing that based on your error-filled screed, if you can accuse me of supporting a murderer, I can equate you as the dumbest version of the American vox populi.

      Also, tofu and quiche are quite tasty.

      Please, in the future, take time to read the posts here close enough to correctly interpret them.

  7. Mark Miwertz

    You’ll never get a beautiful post like this at…er…well…only at 4&20 Blackbirds will I find politics juxtaposed with this. As a lament to times gone by it’s quite evocative. I’m not sure about the victorious tofu but at least that’s a note of triumph.

    I’m sure you know the destruction of small rural American towns requires no Anaconda Copper. The small town on the side of the blue highway disappeared in the 60s. I can still smell the general store my great grandparents ran. Today the signs are rusted, the gas pumps long gone, and the building falling down, but as I stand on the side of the by- passed highway I’m spooked by family memories and there’s a prickling on my skin, like a breeze from the phantom semis singing down the empty road.

    Whether Mr Peabody hauled it away or Anaconda left the town emptied or CRP closed the implement dealer and the local school, small towns disappear when their reason to exist, whatever provides the jobs and the economy, disappears. The enterprise that abandoned the town, created the town.That’s the conundrum of any town; lose your commerce, lose your town.

    And while small or medium towns suffer this fate, we can only imagine those hundreds of thousands who wake every day in diminished Detroit. listening for a long gone Motown heartbeat.

    Anyway, nice job.

    • Duganz

      Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  8. Isaac Nolte

    Too bitter, companies come and go and so do towns. Anaconda was and is everything you say. I’m not from Anaconda, but have spent more than a little time in Anaconda because my wife calls that her home town. I actually lived in Anaconda for a short period of time while I went to school in Butte at MT. Tech. I’m always amazed by how tough and resilient the town and the people are. For the life of me, I can’t see why it hasn’t become an attractive retirement town. Nice lake, a decent ski slope and a great golf course. Other than the cold winters what else could you want?

    As for your thoughts on ARCO, the basic purpose of any company is to make money, When money can’t be made you shut down the business, just like all of the small stores in Anaconda did. Are the owners of the stores that shutdown in 6 months evil because they let the one or two workers employed there go when they couldn’t turn a profit.

    I grew up in a town that will someday be just like Anaconda; except that it doesn’t have a lake, ski slope or Jack Nicholas golf course and never will. Wright, Wyoming was built by ARCO so that ARCO could extract huge amounts of coal and try to turn a profit. When I lived in Wright it had a population of 2,000 people. From what I understand, it still is about the same size. Still it was a great place to grow up. I took for granted that every small town had an indoor olympic size swimming pool, basketball courts, great baseball fields and a 9 hole golf course. Since then I’ve lived in MT, CO, IA, NY and WV. Turns out that only small towns completely subsidized by large corporations have those type of facilities. To date I’ve never seen anything like it. Some day the coal will be consumed, the mines will shutdown and the town will go away. This is a fact of life not an indictment of evil.

    As time went by, ARCO decided to get out of the coal business and focus on oil. ARCO sold it’s coal properties to a company called ARCH which I now work for. ARCH allows me to provide an excellent quality of life for my family. I now live and work in WV, the mine I work at is well funded and brand spanking new. Who knows where it will be 10 years from now, but at this time I’m grateful for what it provides me. Odds are good that before I retire on my own accord I will stop working because the coal market won’t support my type of work or the EPA will prevent blue collar workers from extracting coal to keep the lights on. I know this and accept this. I’m happy for the opportunity that I have. I understand that at some point in my life I may have to accept a job that pays less. Still, I’m not bitter. Life is what you make it, I will make it spectacular.

    As a side note, the town of Grafton, WV is experiencing a small boom because of the mine that I work at. Our mine won’t last forever, but in the present: schools are better funded and more people go to work at better paying jobs than they did in the past. Won’t last forever, but I’ll bet that the people that live their don’t wish it away.

    • Not sure everyone working a mine agrees with you or has the same foresight. People sure lacked foresight in Anaconda.

  9. I have lived in anaconda my whole life that hurt the town worse than anything. ARCO payed for the schools and everything in the town. Then when the smelter closed we had to find new ways to help our town. The problem know is everyone wants to live in the past and every building that should be tore down is not being tore down because people start something when one crumbling building is falling down and we can’t tear it down. It hurt us to much holding onto everything that we do not need and businesses that can help us grow being turned away non stop also we need multiple big hotels in anaconda the local hotels are falling short, relative come to stay at local hotels blood on sheets and nasty rooms, they end up staying in Butte. Anaconda turns away businesses that can help, but local businesses are afraid to compete, if you can not compete with other businesses you probably should not have that business. By just getting big simple hotels such as motel 8, best western, or any it will will help Goosetown, Wayne Estes more people will stay in anaconda at these tournaments if we had these hotels more of these people stay in butte and drive over everyday during these tournaments and spend money in butte. Anaconda needs to fix simple thing and it will help and grow. Also it will help the school, we get the ability to hold big high school tournaments. More money for the town. We need to stop worrying about what happened and start doing something about it. I love this though and gives a broad view. I just thought I would point this out.

    • I agree that many folks remain in the past, but sometimes a trauma is too much to overcome. When I wrote this article several years ago there was a new bbq joint, a brewery and a clothing shop open in Anaconda. They’re all gone now. It’s difficult to say one thing would solve the issues in Anaconda.

  10. SReynolds

    Great article. But, what it comes down to is noone complains about pollution or the big industry as long as they are paying the big bucks towards a paycheck. But whining about it sure does happen when those paychecks stop. We little people are no different or any less greedy than the big business. We are willing to turn the other cheek and have as long as our paycheck is coming in.

    • I think the little people are different in one way: when profits fall and stock gets sold they usually don’t benefit; when the company moves they get left behind.

  11. Real nice story. My husband Dan’s family business has been in Anaconda since 1945, Anaconda has been good to them. My dad George Wyant was injured at the smelter Oct.30th, 1982 a week before it totally shut down, I believe there were only 3 of them left. Needless to say he was the last to use the smelter ambulance. He lived the next 30 years disabled and not able to do much. Thanks for your story.

  12. Blake Hempstead

    It’s always tough to write a story that you were never alive to see for yourself. You did it as well as any I’ve read, living in that era or not. It’s easy to point a finger at who is to blame, it’s difficult to make that finger stick. But, the people here now are warriors, even if some if not most of the toughness has since departed. The town will rebound someday, the sad part is some its former children are the ones keeping the boot on its throat.

  13. Dr. J

    So true, Anaconda is dead. The only thing left is public housing and welfare. I drove through this
    economic ghost town, and I must say it is sad. It was in the middle of the day and it seemed as though no one was working. I saw dirty people walking around drinking and smoking. It is too bad all the good people have left due to the economic crisis.

    • You have no idea what you’re talking about, and clearly did not read even the title of this post.

  14. I lived in Anaconda when I was a little boy, back in the 1950s, and I still have family there. What do we say about an economic system that allows capitalists to destroy an environment and then walk away from their depredations? Apologias from the serfs are sad, at best.

    • Jhawkinstx

      Exactly why would any of those people ever have lived in the area I’d not for the mines?

  15. Jhawkinstx

    Sad to see a town die…but even sadder to see people blame it on companies leaving that were the original reason for the town to exist in the first place. If not for the industry you criticize, there would be nothing in so many rural mountain towns….people always complain about the environmental devastation….well we no longer have the “devastation” and rarely will anyone develop assets in the United States any longer. So many roads, so many towns, so much development that would have never happened if not for the profit motive….now the socialists seem to forget why the jobs they remember ever existed in the first place. Can’t help but think the author had a long section praising the butcher of Bolivia Che Guevara but decided to remove it before publishing….just seemed out of place but right in line with the Marxist undertones.

  1. 1 Canada’s Tar Sands Are NOT Conflict Free Governor Schweitzer « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Schweitzer’s comments were made all the more pornographic given they occurred 30 years from when corporate irresponsibility suffocated Anaconda Montana. […]




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