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A dangerous job that gave life to a town: A look back at the Anaconda Smelter

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A dangerous job that gave life to a town: A look back at the Anaconda Smelter
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It was hot. It was dirty. It was dangerous. But it was a job for thousands.

Anaconda's smelter was a lifeline to immigrants and the lifeblood of a town that depended on the jobs it provided — even as the toxins it produced shortened some workers' lives.

The smelter was shut down in 1980, and the few smeltermen who are still around to tell their stories remember a different time and a very different Anaconda. One after another, the former workers of the Anaconda Company sat down with us on their front porches, on their lawns and in their living rooms and told stories of an idyllic time — kids running freely, neighbors drinking beer on the hood of their cars together, homes with huge families, and a place where people knew who lived in every house all the way down the block. A place where everybody looked out for one another.

They remember an era when making $19.90 a day was good money and a $52 a month pension after 45 years of heavy labor was nothing to complain about. They could buy homes for $6,000, and many did.

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Smelter workers at quitting time in 1942

Smeltermen leave work at the end of their shift in this 1942 Library of Congress photo.

They reminisce about a day when a man putting a silver dollar in the hand of a kid meant so much that one worker after another recalled that particular aspect of Smelterman’s Day in some detail, though it was more than half a century ago. The Mill and Smelterman’s Union gave the silver dollars and held the annual event on Aug. 8. The company let almost everybody off work. 

They also say that getting a job "on the hill" was just what you did if you lived in Anaconda. Many lament that the Anaconda Company is no more.

They wanted to retire with the company. They wanted to send their kids to work there just as so many of them worked alongside their fathers and uncles, cousins and brothers, and in the footsteps of their grandfathers.

They see the emptiness of a town that was built by mining king Marcus Daly for the sole purpose of serving a copper smelter. They lament how, having lost that smelter nearly four decades ago, the town struggles still in the 21st century.

Those who are still around recount stories of bad accidents that took individual lives. They remember drinking — lots of drinking — both on the job and off.

After a little prodding, they summon back to mind the fun they had in the midst of heavy labor and personal danger. With no trouble at all, they remember the smell.

Now what remains is a historical footnote that reaches 585 feet into the sky: The Anaconda Stack, big enough to fit the Washington Monument inside, nestled in a mountain-shaded valley. Built in 1918, the stack is the largest free-standing masonry structure in the world. (see related column).

Also remaining is more than 300 square miles of environmental damage and 130 acres of the waste byproduct, the mound of black slag lining Highway 1.

This year is the Anaconda Stack’s 100th birthday. And this is the story of that stack and Anaconda's Washoe Smelter, gathered from the memories of the people who made it work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week — the workers of the Anaconda Company.

In the beginning

There was the company. There was always the company.

Although local lore says that Irish immigrant Marcus Daly moved operations west of Butte to build his smelters closer to water sources, Bozeman-based historian Timothy LeCain says Daly chose the valley 25 miles west of the Mining City to erect his smokestacks because the air pollution from smelter smoke in Butte was so severe that people were falling ill and dying.

So the Anaconda Company headed west to a place with few inhabitants. Their first smelter, called Old Works, went up in the 1880s, along what is now called Warm Springs Creek.

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Anaconda stack

Workers put in a rail line to bring materials to the spot where the 585-foot stack would be built. The 300-foot stack sends its steady stream of smoke into the air in the background. 

Then in 1902 the Anaconda Company moved south to build the original, approximately 300-foot stack and smelter operations near Mill Creek for a reported $9.5 million.

But that stack wasn’t tall enough.

Farmers and ranchers in the Deer Lodge Valley sued the Anaconda Company shortly after the first load of copper ore was smelted that year. Within that first year, livestock were dying due to the 20 tons of arsenic coming out of the stack every day.

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Anaconda stack

This 1918 shot shows the beginning of the base as it was in the process of being built. 

It took 15 more years, but in 1917, the Anaconda Company responded to the problem by preparing ground to build the 585-foot stack. The idea was a taller stack would send the arsenic farther up into the atmosphere and spread out the toxins. 

The second Anaconda Stack would also contain a pollution abatement process to capture the 75 tons of arsenic a day that was, by then, going up in smoke. The new stack and environmental control system would cost the company $1.6 million.

The system, which involved electrified chains that attracted the arsenic in the dust before it went out the chimney, was only 45 percent effective in the early years. In later years, it was somewhat improved.

Workers alive today are familiar with that abatement system because the company continued to use it until the smelter closed in 1980.

LeCain writes in an article “The Limits of Eco-Efficiency” in a journal called Environmental History in 2000, that the company used the arsenic, a by-product of the copper smelting process, to treat railroad ties.

Mike Skocilich, who is 71, remembers they still used arsenic to treat railroad ties when he worked, first as a smelterman, later as a foreman, on the hill, in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The ties would last forever, but you didn’t want to get a sliver from them. It was bad, it was really bad,” he said while sitting with two reporters on his front porch last week, the hill within sight from his chair.

He pointed to places on the slope as he thought back to the different departments and listed some of them: The zinc plant, the beryllium pilot plant, the phosphate plant, the brick plant. He got up from his chair and pointed to a particular spot and said, "That’s where the ferro mag plant used to be."

Skocilich says the company processed ferromanganese to harden steel.

Butch Ryan, a 74-year-old former pipefitter and smelterman, put the size of the place in broader terms.

“You go up there at night, it was a city, lights burning everywhere,” he said from his living room in a house he’s owned in Opportunity since the 1970s.

All of the workers mentioned Roaster 2, which had “big, huge ovens” where the ore dried out before being sent to the arsenic roaster, then the reverb, another set of furnaces that preheated the ore and turned it into a molten liquid, which then went to the converter, which smelted the ore. There were big piles of dust that could burn skin, conveyor belts, slurry lines, 40-inch pipes, cranes moving, and thousands of men wandering in the smoke, dust and gas in buildings that were anywhere from 40 to 90 feet tall, Ryan said.

There were also underground tunnels. Ryan called it “a real strange place.”

“Most of that smelter was built in the early 1900s. It was still the same,” he said of his time at the smelter in the 1960s and 1970s. Ryan speaks in a deep, guttural voice. “Some of them buildings, they were spooky but kind of neat, hardwood floors, brick walls, and they had arched windows. It had an other-worldly feel to it.”

What researchers learned

Workers described the smell as having been, at times, “chemical” or sulfuric, like rotten eggs. But what Peggy Mangan remembers most is the noise.

Mangan, who is now 65, worked as a smelterman during the summers in the early 1970s to pay for college.

“One thing I remember, the noise up there was incredibly intense. It didn’t seem to matter where you were, you could be in the rod mills or the ball mills. It was noisy. Even having lunch, it was always crazy noisy and dirty and dark,” she said over the phone from her Atlanta-based home last week.

But it wasn’t the noise that killed people. It was the arsenic in the dust the workers breathed.

In 1969 two researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, began researching Anaconda’s smelter workers. The company cooperated, providing documents to scientists Joseph Fraumeni and Anna Lee. They looked at the records of more than 8,000 employees. The researchers could connect the dots linking environmental exposure to mortality rates and disease because they could determine, through company records, where the workers stood or sat for 40 hours a week, 50 or so weeks out of the year.

Fraumeni and Lee’s research took them all the way back to worker exposure in the 1930s. They found a clear link between respiratory cancer deaths and arsenic exposure where arsenic was the heaviest in the facility.

The original study was groundbreaking.

The Anaconda smelter workers are now some of the most-studied workers in the U.S. At least six additional studies have been conducted on that same group of roughly 8,000 workers since Fraumeni and Lee’s original work in 1969.

The most recent, in 2015, by a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill scientist, found that heavy arsenic exposure in the smelter was associated with an increased risk of death from heart disease for the workers.

The company made efforts to decrease arsenic exposure to the workers over the years, according to both company spokespeople and researchers. Workers employed in the first half of the 20th century suffered far more exposure than workers in the final two decades.

Ryan says his grandfather, who worked at the smelter in the earlier era, walked in arsenic up to his knees. His grandfather died of lung cancer, according to Ryan.

Ryan also says the company provided masks for the men to wear by the time he started with the company as a smelterman in 1966. But he said the workers didn’t always have them on.

“They gave you masks. Those masks were designed to get you through the gas and get out of there. They were not designed to work in. You couldn’t breathe. You were working hard. It was hot,” Ryan said.

Mangan believes the emphysema that killed her dad, a former smelter employee, might have been from exposure to the arsenic and metals.

Nonetheless, the now-65-year-old went to work on the hill shortly after he died. She wore his hard hat, which still bore the Mangan family name. She continued to go back every summer after that until she graduated with a teaching degree.

“There was no other way to pay for college," she said.

What else was in the air?

Arsenic wasn’t the only contamination that brought risk to the workers.

Ryan remembers taking 20-minute naps at the smelter during his lunch hour on “asbestos pillows.” He rested his head on potato sacks filled with chunks of asbestos.

Asbestos is highly toxic and causes mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs, and asbestosis, a deadly lung disease.

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Larry Lakel

Larry Lakel, right, and his wife Ann pose with their dog in front of their home in Anaconda on July 25. Lakel worked as a smelterman for about 15 years.

Larry Lakel, a smelterman for approximately 15 years, worked in the beryllium plant, which carried its own particular danger. The men had to wear special clothes before entering.

The beryllium dust was so toxic that no broom was allowed in that particular facility. The beryllium plant had to be washed down with a hose, Lakel said.

“This was real deadly. I appreciated that, I really did when they told me you don’t want to breathe this stuff,” Lakel said two weeks ago, sitting on his patio while his Scottish terrier occasionally took to barking in the yard. An American flag rolled back and forth in the breeze in front of his house.

The beryllium was used to create heat shields for rockets, Lakel said.

“It was like powdered sugar and it would get airborne really easy. We had respirators, a special nylon suit. You’d go in there, you’d have a face mask with a filter on the back. When you left, there was a fog room with a fine mist to wet you down. You’d take off your clothes, shower and the last thing you’d take off is the mask. The clothes were in a bag and they washed them special,” Lakel said.

There were also bad accidents.

All the workers employed at the smelter in the late 1960s brought up the story of a man who died a particularly gruesome death involving a giant auger.

Other stories included men losing a limb on a conveyor belt, or getting crushed or burned to death. There were also deaths caused by runaway trucks or rail cars that moved unexpectedly. Sometimes the fires in the furnaces got out of control and the company kept its own fire department on site because of that.

Lakel experienced a few near misses.

Joseph Balkovatz, at 92, was the oldest worker who spoke to The Montana Standard. His father lost a foot to a rail car at the plant.

How did they get through it?

With the price of a draft beer at 10 cents, drink might be one answer.

Nearly all the former workers told the story of bartenders lining up 30 or 40 shots as the streetcar or the company bus stopped at the bars both before work and after.

Virtually everyone we spoke with retold the stories of the drinking that went on during the job and after the workers clocked out.

The numbers vary, depending on which former smelter worker is talking, but they remember anywhere from 20 to 56 bars during the 1960s in the Smelter City.

Skocilich said that even though men brought whiskey in lunch buckets or kept a flask of vodka at the ready, and some were already drunk by 9 a.m.,  everybody stayed mum.

“We had a couple of guys … You’d put them down in the rope house, the old barns for the horses, and they’d stay there until they sobered up. Sometimes they never sobered up all day and nobody turned anybody in,” Skocilich said.

Many we talked to recalled showing up at work hung over. One of the most popular bars was the Owl, were three shots and a beer could be had for $1 50 years ago.

“We’d rebuild the smelter, over and over,” Ryan joked. “The Owl Bar was great for that. There was more work done in that bar then there ever was in that smelter. ‘I built this today, we put this up and that up.’ ‘Yea, I know you did.’ When, really, you were wishing your hangover would go away so you could go and have a beer.”

Lakel told a story about himself drinking while working. He said a supervisor was sending the men to different assignments.

“I’m the last guy. I had a half-pint in my back pocket. The boss comes over to me, he hits my back pocket, he says ‘What are you doing? Trying to get fired? Don’t get caught.’ I says, ‘You caught me.' He says ‘Don’t let anybody else catch you.' He says, ‘I got a job for you. Get a shovel and a pick, there’s a hole. You go down there and clean that around there because you got to change that valve.’ I go down the ladder. He pulls the ladder out. I says, ‘What’re you doing?’ He says, ‘Nobody else will catch you and I’ll be back at 20 to 4.’”

Skocilich said that even when he was a foreman, he never told upper management.

“You took care of people. You knew almost everybody,” he said.

A place for immigrants and the disenfranchised

Anaconda was once filled with immigrants — mostly Irish, Italians, Serbs and Croats.

They lived in separate neighborhoods and had their own stores. Margie Smith, one of the organizers of Smelterman’s Days, said immigrants sometimes came through Ellis Island with stickers attached to their clothes that said “Anaconda Company” and “Montana.”

John Forkan, retired head of the plumbers and pipefitters union in Butte, said he remembers from his Anaconda childhood when there was still a generation of Anacondans who spoke their native language and could not speak English. He said immigrants who already had experience working on smelters in their home countries were often the ones shipped out to the Smelter City when they sought a new life in the New World.

The smelter also was a place for those without much education to work.

Lakel, who finished high school and entered the Air Force before returning to Anaconda in 1965, said quitting school and going to work on the smelter was not unusual.

“A lot of guys couldn’t read. They’d ask me quietly — when you can’t read, you don’t want other people to know — so I’d go out in back with them and go around and I’d read it (a company document) to them and say, ‘Well, do you want to take this deal or not?’” Lakel recalled.

Whether it came from the union or whether it came from the work, there was a sense of unity that brought the workers together.

“I loved the people,” Ryan said. “We were all cousins or related; we all knew each other. That made it real bearable.”

Both the skilled and the unskilled belonged to unions. The smeltermen, who basically worked all over the smelter complex and took any job the boss gave them, belonged to the Mill and Smeltermen’s Union. That later became part of the United Steelworkers Union of America in the 1950s, said Forkan.

There was always a job for anybody who was willing to work. Ellen Tocher, who at 83 remembers working in the general office in the late 1950s, said neither a resume nor qualifications were needed. All a person had to do was put in an application.

“There were jobs for everybody. You could learn a trade,” she said, surrounding by copper plates in her home in East Anaconda.

For many, working for the company was a point of intense pride.   

Myers said he didn't work for the smelter. "I worked for the Anaconda Company."

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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