Anaconda – A Montana Gem

By Mark Spero and Rick Graetz

“In 1880, Nate Leavengood’s meadow, where Anaconda now stands, was a lush and quiet place. As far as the eye could see in all directions there was nothing but the valley, the swelling foothills and mountain ramparts…four years later, the meadow was gone…there had been no gradual encroachment of civilization, no creeping in of small farms and little stores. There was no village. First there was nothing, and then all of a sudden there was the world’s largest smelter and around it a raw new city.” K. Ross Toole 

For many Montanans, the name Anaconda is a symbol of the state’s raucous history of copper smelting, labor strife, environmental struggles, and political upheaval.  Anaconda has not only lived at the center of this history, but weathered it to become a thriving, modern community, and the Deer Lodge County seat.  Its idyllic placement near the Continental Divide and the Anaconda Range has made it a hub of outdoor economic activity.   

Before the Anaconda area was settled by Europeans, the Shoshone and Salish tribes spent time here as hunter gatherers.  

Anaconda
Anaconda

Marcus Daly, one of the three “Copper Kings”, founded the town while financing the construction of the Anaconda Smelter on Warm Springs Creek.  He called the new settlement Copperopolis, but the name was already taken when he filed the paperwork in 1883, so he named it Anaconda, a recommendation from Clinton Moore US postmaster general at the time.  

Daly also created the Anaconda Mining Company, which began mining silver deposits in the Butte area, but the company’s true success came with the Butte copper mines, especially the shafts he spearheaded in an area then, and now known as “The Richest Hill on Earth.”  

With discoveries of massive copper deposits, Daly was able to expand the Anaconda smelter, and use his railroad company, the “Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway,” to quickly move ore to the smelter.  Anaconda thrived.   

In 1899, he sold the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to Standard Oil, who then renamed it the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company.  Daly died the following year, and by that time his company had grown from his original investment of $30,000 to nearly $40,000,000.  Copper continued to rise in price, primarily due to the growing use of the metal in electrical light filaments, and in 1919, the Anaconda smelter was expanded to its largest size.  It included the still standing 585-foot stack, the largest masonry structure in the world, and a smelter that was the world’s biggest non-ferrous processing plant. 

Daly and the Copper Kings helped build Montana into a thriving state, but they also abused their workers, forcing them into dangerous labor conditions for little pay.  In the elections of 1903, many workers felt that these abuses had gone on too long, and the Socialist Party of America won the races for mayor, treasurer, and three councilmen.  This was the party’s first major victory West of the Mississippi.  But their successes were not long lived, as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company pressured the rest of the government to not work with the socialists, and the company began rooting out and firing any socialist employees.  The Socialist Party of America could not stand against the power of the company and soon lost many of their gains.   

In 1980, with waning mining productivity, the smelter was shut down after over a century of operation.  Anaconda now had the problem of heavily polluted areas around the old smelting operations.  A multimillion-dollar cleanup operation began, leading to a much cleaner Anaconda.  Part of the remediation efforts encompassed the site of the original smelter on the valley’s north side, commonly referred to as the “Old Works.”  With plans for a golf course, Jack Nicklaus was contacted and subsequently designed the Old Works Golf Course where he incorporated historic mining relics and utilized the smelting byproduct of black slag in all the course bunkers.    Work continues today on decontaminating areas in and around Anaconda.  In 2020, a deal was reached between the owners of the smelter, the EPA, and Deer Lodge County to increase efforts to clean up toxic materials. 

Some of the historic buildings remain as symbols of much of the changes that took place in Montana, over the past century.  The Washoe Theater, built in 1936, was one of the last theaters built in the Nuevo Deco design.  Copper is prominently featured inside, displaying the mineral that put Anaconda on the map.  The county courthouse, parts of the old smelter, business district buildings and homes are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. 

Anaconda Deer Lodge County Courthouse
Anaconda Deer Lodge County Courthouse | Rick & Susie Graetz

Another still-operating historic business is Club Moderne, a bar named “America’s Favorite Historic Bar” by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.   

The most prominent structure in Anaconda, both for its historic significance and its sheer size, is the Stack.  Standing taller than the Washington Monument, The Stack is a designated Montana State Park. The town’s, and the state’s, vibrant history of copper mining and smelting is exhibited in The Copper Village Museum and Arts Center, housed in the Anaconda City Hall, another site listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. 

Like the other human enclaves in Southwest Montana, Anaconda is connected to spectacular wild country and big mountains. 

Carrying the Continental Divide and some of Montana’s signature high country summits and mountain lakes. The Anaconda Range begins its 50-mile-long northeast – southwest run from Anaconda to Lost Trail Pass and Montana Idaho border. This is the communities’ playground, and a visitor’s base camp for every mountain activity imaginable.   

Straddling the crest of the range and the Continental Divide for 40 miles, the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness is close to town with many trailheads within a relatively short distance. Here is a landscape of jagged peaks and diverse fauna.  At over 150,000 acres, the area is home to mountains goats, elk, thirteen varieties of raptors, and a rare species of freshwater clam.  Montanans come to this wilderness to snowshoe, ski, hunt, and backpack in a pristine ecosystem.  

Anaconda Range and Historic Mule Ranch
Anaconda Range and Historic Mule Ranch | Rick & Susie Graetz

Mill Creek drainage on the southwest side of the Anaconda Range accesses more outdoor opportunities, especially in winter. The Mount Haggin Nordic Ski Area and its more than 15 miles of trails, some reaching the Continental Divide, are popular region wide. Anaconda is only 11 miles away. 

Across the valley from town, on Anaconda’s north perimeter the Flint Creek Range, also claiming lofty pinnacles and 60,000 acres of roadless country stretches north for close to 40 miles. Near the community, Lost Creek State Park, encased in a valley surrounded by grey, white, and pink limestone cliffs is a popular mountain attraction. These formations rise upwards of 1,200 feet above the canyon’s floor. Lost Creek Falls, in the northwest corner of the park, cascades over a 50-foot drop to provide one of the most scenic spots in the park.  Golden eagles and bighorn sheep frequent the area. 

Anaconda’s “local ski hill”, Discovery Basin, although the folks from Phillipsburg might object, is on the western edge of the range. Its base area is only 25 miles from town.  

Georgetown Lake is another Anaconda gem and an aquatic playground for locals and visitors alike. The east shore of this 3,000-acre high mountain lake is only 17 miles away.  

Enmeshed in the history of Montana, from its origins in copper mining to more recent efforts to clean and protect the natural world.  Whether it was the copper kings or the socialists, the residents of have been independent, forward thinkers. Today a sense of pride in place and time are evident and the folks who call this celebrated town home, aren’t done yet; there is more work to be done to elevate Anaconda’s reputation as a must to see!  

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Mark Spero is a University of Montana graduate student and editor of UM’s This is Montana program 

Rick Graetz is a University of Montana professor and Director of several UM programs 

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