In my work across Montana in 1984-85 there was no more imposing structure than the smelter stack and works at Anaconda, in Deer Lodge County. The image above was one I used in the 20 plus listening sessions I had across the state in 1984, gathering perspectives and recommended properties for the state historic preservation plan. I used the stack because the smelter had just closed–and how this chapter in the state’s mining history could be preserved was on many minds.
Whenever I visited the western part of the state in subsequent years, a stop in Anaconda was a must, to see if the stack was still there and what maybe was the latest of this modern landmark, this overwhelming symbol of corporate power from the early 20th century. Some might recall the visitor center that existed there in the mid-1980s.
The stack and its fascinating impact on the landscape wasn’t the only reason I often stopped in Anaconda in the 30 years since the survey. There was that far different place, the Club Moderne Tavern.When I traveled the state in 1984-1985 this jewel of mid-1930s modern design was not listed in the National Register of Historic Places–Mike Koop of the state office soon took care of that after I left–and now most of Anaconda is included within a massive National Historic Landmark district about Butte-Anaconda and the copper mine culture of the 20th century. I want to explore the layers of history, and how heritage development have shaped both towns over 30 years, in a series of posts, beginning with my work in Anaconda in 2011-12.
The Washoe Stack is one of the state’s most dominant man-made environments. For like the massive dams and reservoirs at Hungry Horse, Canyon Creek, and Fort Peck, there is the massiveness of the structure itself, and the thousands of surrounding acres impacted by the property. Unlike the lakes created by the dams of the first half of the 20th century, however, the stack left devastation in its wake, not recreation, not rebirth.
The old gateway to the smelter introduces you to one lasting legacy of the stack–the tons of slag located along the highway leading in and out of Anaconda. The huge pile of
seems like some sort of black sand that has washed up on a beach rather the environmental spoils left by 100 years or production.
The Washoe Smelter almost 100 years ago was considered an engineering marvel. In my last piece of published Montana research, for the Drumlummon Institute’s special book on Butte and Anaconda, I wrote: “The Alphonis Chimney Construction Company built the Washoe Stock for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1918. The stack is 585 feet high, 60 feet wide at the top with an interior diameter of 75 feet. Few industrial structures anywhere compare to it. The stack loomed over the company, its workers, its region, and its state.”
Historian Laurie Mercier’s book on Anaconda has many valuable insights from local residents on what the stack means. Bob Vine believed that the Company and God were all the same in Anaconda: “Everybody would get up in the morning and they look and see if there was smoke coming out of that stack and if there was, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world, and we knew we were going to have a paycheck.” (Mercier, Anaconda, p. 1)
In the 1980s, the Atlantic Richfield Corporation, a later owner of the Washoe works, announced the stack’s closing and possible demolition. A community-wide effort to save the stack was launched because, in the poetic words of local union activist Tom Dickson:
ARCO save that stack, touch not a single brick
Signify the livelihood that made Anaconda tick.
Still let it stand there stark against the sky,
Like a somewhat obscene gesture catching every eye. (Mercier, Anaconda, p. 217)
The toxic fumes from the stack infected thousands of acres, with the ironically named community of Opportunity, just north of the smelter works, bearing the brunt of the waste. Community members continue to fight back for better cleanup of their damaged parks, yards, and businesses. Indeed, it is still a moonscape around most of the smelter, and one wonders when that ever changes.
Club Moderne was an oasis for me in Anaconda–an architectural landmark from the 1930s that still felt like stepping back in time, especially with a bartender so knowledgeable of the classic cocktails of mid-century.
That the place remained so intact in the early 1980s was impressive to me–that it remains that way 30 years later is a testament to local stewardship, and continued good times. The interior design of Art Deco details also remain to treat the eye and tempt
the drinking hand. The place might not be as packed as in the heydays. Anaconda’s population stood at just about 12,500 in 1930–just over 9,000 called Anaconda home in 2010. But it, and the long lamented Copper Club (closed for years now) was why you came to Anaconda 30 years ago and spent a night–good food, good drink, and a chance
to experience one of the state’s most architecturally distinctive places.