Friday, July 24, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 7: Precious Metals

The settlement of Southwest Montana is a story of mining - the excitement, the rush, the plundering, and the decline of chasing after gold and copper.

The first official U.S. visit to the territory was Lewis and Clark's 1805 expedition. In 1806, John Colter, a member of the expedition, struck out on his own, determined to make a fortune as a trapper and trader. When he returned to St. Louis four years later, he was a very rich man. Having likely been the first non-Native American to see what is now Yellowstone Park, he was also raving about boiling springs and smoke billowing from the ground. The people in St. Louis thought he was insane, but they were evidently willing to overlook insanity in the face of wealth. Companies (including John Jacob Astor's) and hundreds of freelancers lit out for the wilderness. These trappers brought back more than half a million beaver pelts annually for 30 years. By the 1840s, beavers were all but extinct in the Rockies and the Montana Territory was reliably to be found on the white man's maps.

For the next 20 years or so, people pretty much went through Montana on their way further west. But everything changed when prospectors struck gold in 1862, 1863 and 1864.

The last strike was at Last Chance Gulch in what is now Helena. This was a rich strike: in today's dollars, $3.6 billion in gold was mined from 1864-1884. To this day, the main drag of Helena's cute downtown is called Last Chance Gulch. (How great an address is 1200 Last Chance Gulch? North of downtown, it's the YMCA where I go to swim while we're here.)

Mines, railroads, ranches and lawlessness flourished in the Montana Territory from 1862 until nearly the turn of the century. But a brutal winter in 1887 dealt a harsh blow to ranchers and began the decline of the Old West. The U.S. Congress ended silver subsidies in 1893, which ruined the market and caused the collapse of silver mines throughout the Rockies. The same thing happened to the gold market in 1933.

The story of copper mining continued into the 1970s, but it, too, ends badly - a rise and fall nowhere better illustrated than in Anaconda.

We visited Anaconda, a city of 10,000 people about 50 miles northwest of Butte, on one of our side trips from Helena. In the 1880s, the Butte area became the world's largest copper producer. Over 19 billion pounds of ore were unearthed by hard-rock miners over the following decades; the copper was then extracted by smelters and shipped all over the world.

Anaconda was founded in 1883 when legendary "copper king" Marcus Daly built a copper smelter and reduction works there as part of his ongoing battle for domination of the Butte-area copper industry. From 1892-1903, the Anaconda Copper Company was the largest copper mine in the world; over its lifetime, it produced $300 billion worth of the metal. In 1899, the company was merged into Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, in a brazen sleight-of-financial-hand deal that made a few people exceedingly rich and led, among other things, to the eventual enactment of U.S. antitrust laws.

Anaconda Copper was shut down in 1980, a casualty of the decrease in worldwide demand for copper, decline in ore grades, and rising mining costs. (The takeover in 1971 by Socialist President Allende of Anaconda's huge Chuquicamata mine in Chile didn't help much either.)

All that remains of the operation now is the Anaconda Smelter Stack, one of the tallest freestanding brick structures in the world. At 585 feet, the stack is taller than the Washington Monument; it now looms sadly over the landscape from its position atop a hill next to what appears to be a slag heap. I'm not sure exactly what to make of the fact that this giant phallic symbol is the sole remnant of years of fabulous wealth, back-breaking work, financial chicanery, environmental devastation, and worldwide domination.

Befitting its wealth and status, Anaconda was once an opulent city. By 1898, it boasted mansions (small by East Coast and Midwestern standards, but grand indeed in the Old West), fancy churches, and other grandiose buildings, including the Hearst Free Library (George Hearst, William Randolph's father, was one of Daly's investors) and the Washoe Theater (978 seats, Art Deco, and rated by the Smithsonian as one of the most beautiful interiors in the United States). Like the Anaconda Smelter Stack, this all looks sad today, run-down and/or abandoned as it is.

On Highway 1, the road to and from Anaconda, you pass the towns of Wisdom and Opportunity. I wonder if the same person named both and, if so, whether he meant the two names to be taken optimistically (the southbound Wisdom, then Opportunity) or pessimistically (the northbound Wisdom after Opportunity).

1 comment:

Aprill said...

Glad you are out in Montana having such a great time. What a wonderful country and rich history we enjoy!