For nearly eight decades, Murray resident Luella W. Finlinson has looked to the smelter smokestacks silhouetted against the sunset and known she was home.
The old American Smelter and Refining Co. stacks, just off State Street at 5300 South, are the backdrop for many memories throughout her life.In her teenage years, Finlinson made friends with the children of European immigrants who came to America to work at the smelters. As a grade school teacher at the now-demolished Arlington School, she could look out the window and see the smelter workers dumping hot liquid ore. Anytime she flew in from a vacation, one glimpse at the stacks as the plane came over the mountain and she knew her journey was almost over.
"It was just part of growing up," Finlinson said. "You just looked to the stacks and knew where you lived. They've been part of my life as far as being a landmark, being special."
But Finlinson, whose childhood home at the top ofVine Street was far from the site, said her distant view allowed her to reap all the benefits and no detriments.
Burning eyes, blighted corn and brownish fumes are all Bruce
Smith, another lifetime Murray resident, recalls of the stacks. Smith, whose grandfather sold the land to the smelter industry, grew up on his family's farm, which bordered the ASARCO site on the south.
While the smelter company bosses were headquartered in his grandfather's red brick home, he saw his parents struggle to turn a profit on 3-foot corn stalks that produced only withered ears.
"I have no fond memories of the stacks," Smith said.
Looming at 456 feet, the south smokestack is the tallest man-made structure in the Salt Lake Valley. Along with its 295-foot partner, it's the most visible landmark of a bittersweet era come and gone.
But the duo's doom is near.
At the polls in June, 80 percent of Murray voters opposed increasing taxes to fund cleanup and preservation of the stacks, work that was estimated to cost up to $3.4 million.
And developers Boyer Co. and Johansen-Thackery are unsure if the stacks fit with their $1 billion-plus plans to put in a medical center, a business and retail center and movie theater complex on the 141-acre site.
Jay Bell, attorney for Hi-Ute Investments, the company that owns the smokestack property, said last week that Hi-Ute has determined the stacks are coming down. The company is now preparing reports for the Environmental Protection Agency that outline how the stacks will be dismantled, but Bell said he's not sure how long the process will take.
An economic boom
History-book accounts attest to the smelter industry's role at the turn of the century in propelling Murray into the state's economic forefront and setting it apart as a diverse, albeit rowdy, town.
The story begins in 1870 when the Woodhull brothers built the first furnace for smelting ores at the junction of State Street and Big Cottonwood Creek. In the next 25 years or so, about a dozen other smelter companies followed their lead.
After ASARCO took over the Germania smelter at the turn of the century, it handled every day 1,200 tons of ore hauled from Park City, Alta, Bingham and Stockton. As the largest lead smelter in the world at the time, ASARCO is credited with transforming Murray from a sleepy pioneer settlement into a booming community.
Longtime Murray resident Arion Erekson remembers how people reacted with awe at the town's blossoming industrialization. Residents gathered when a string of 10 carts on a rail dumped loads of slag in sequence off the edge of the cliff near Little Cottonwood Creek.
The red hot slag running down the hill at night created a sort of fireworks display for the town's entertainment, he said.
Another byproduct of the smelter industry was increased diversity in Murray from the turn of the century to just after World War II, which was shortly before the ASARCO smelter closed for good.
In 1945, Germans comprised 50 percent of its workers; Austrians, 10 percent; and Swedes, 10 percent. Americans made up only 30 percent.
In the shade of the Murray City Cemetery, a row of gravestones with the Swiss family name "Berger" is a physical reminder of the foreign families that gave their lifeblood to the smelters.
Many poor workers like the Berger family went home to humble abodes just yards from their workplace. Frame houses without paint, running water or sewage systems characterized this side of town.
"Bergertown," a cluster of homes just south of 4800 South on Big Cottonwood Creek, was settled by Swiss immigrant Christian Berger prior to the town's industrialization. But as the smelters came to town, the community, which was nestled right next to the slag dumps, began to take the shape of a rundown village.
Historian Brian P. Winterwood in "A History of Murray" writes, "The farther down the financial scale the head of the household was, the closer he found himself to the railroad tracks and slag dump of the smelter."
The ASARCO smelter was a lonely sight at night - not at all a pleasant place to live near, lifetime Murray residents recall. Hot coals in the slag dump cast an eerie glow into a pond that once sat in front of the two tall stacks.
The company attempted to alleviate its workers' poor living conditions in 1911 by building two-room houses just south of the smelter site. Laborers were required to pay rent for the homes when the smelter was in operation; when the smelter didn't operate, no rental fee was required.
This area became known as Community Center, and many of the small homes built by the company still stand today on Murray's Woodrow Street (5400 South).
Arsenic and lead
Robert Berger - Christian Berger's great grandson - still lives on the original family homestead, now coined Berger Lane (4900 South). His family boasts a legacy of smelter workers, some of whom were laborers and others who were their bosses. That's why, according to Robert Berger, "most of Murray's smelter troubles were settled at the supper table."
In the smelter's early days, before the company provided showers, Berger said he remembers trying to take lunch to his father and not being able to tell which worker he was because he was covered with soot from head to toe.
Today, nearly a century later, the ground on which Bergertown stood - including some in Robert Berger's front yard - is soon to be excavated to remove contaminants left by the smelter operation, such as arsenic and lead.
Pollution from the smelters - which caused acid rain and ill health for the workers - turned out to be the chief factor in the industry's demise.
In 1907, farmers blamed the smelters for damaged crops, sued and won. Most of Murray's smelter companies shut down then, but ASARCO continued to operate because it was determined that construction of the 456-foot stack would satisfactorily disseminate contaminants.
The two existing stacks puffed on for 42 more years. But in 1950 - just five months after a town jubilee commemorating the 50-year anniversary of ASARCO - they spouted their last. Local mines were simply out of ore.
The face of Murray that has marked Salt Lake Valley for a century will soon be again forever altered when the stacks are demolished. As Erekson said, "There will be a nudity in the skies over Murray."
Rise and fall of Murray's smelter industry
Murray smelter industry and smokestack chronology:
- 1858 - Mineral deposits are found in the Salt Lake Valley.
- 1864 - Ore is discovered in Little Cottonwood Canyon, 10 miles southeast of Murray.
- June 1870 - Murray's Woodhull brothers build the first furnace for smelting ores near State Street and Big Cottonwood Creek.
- 1872 - Sixteen furnaces for ore smelting are in operation in the Murray area.
- 1902 - American Smelter and Refining Co. (ASARCO) takes over the smaller Germania plant and becomes the largest lead smelter in the world. Murray is incorporated and becomes a third-class city, in part to provide local control over reining in rowdy smelter workers.
- 1907 - Farmers whose crops are affected by the smelters' pollution win a lawsuit against the smelter companies, and most are shut down. ASARCO stays open and begins work on a 456-foot smokestack to resolve the pollution problem.
- 1918 - ASARCO's smokestacks are dedicated.
- November 1950 - The ASARCO smelter is closed, and the plant begins to be dismantled.
- June 1998 - Murray residents vote against increasing taxes to pay for preserving the stacks, leaving their fate in the hands of private developers.