October 27, 2016

Great Falls and the Anaconda Copper Company

by Barbara Pepper-Rotness, Library Technician

Of course, we know that images evoke different responses depending upon the perspective of the viewer. Just as a painting may be pleasing, puzzling, or even off-putting, a photographic image contains elements that may or may not draw us in for a closer look. However, providing context for and a description of those elements may spark an interest we never anticipated.

Transformers at Zinc Electrolytic Substation. [Great Falls, Montana] January 29, 1920.
Catalog #PAc 81-34.2577

The Anaconda Copper Company Photograph Collection [PAc 81-34] includes images of smelting and refining copper and of the electrolytic zinc plant in Great Falls, Montana - not your typical ‘pretty’ pictures. However, Lory Morrow, Manager of the MHS Photo Archives, notes that the predominantly glass negative collection doesn’t just capture the day-to-day functions of an ore processing plant. It also contains images of people at work and play, along with wonderful views of the city of Great Falls and of the Missouri River over the course of sixty years.

First Aid Contest - A. C. M. [Anaconda Copper Mining] Club Orchestra, [Great Falls, Montana]. June 23, 1928.
Catalog #PAc 81-34.3059

To help researchers access this photograph collection, volunteer Anthony Schrillo, a retired mechanical engineer, is entering data found in record books provided by the ACM concerning over five thousand negatives in a Microsoft Access database. With the negative number, the title and description of each image, and the date the photo was taken, we get a visual record of the entire operation - machinery, supplies, buildings, and more - specific to the industrial complex at Great Falls between 1900 and 1958.  The work involved in cataloging this great collection will enable us to delve more deeply into a significant aspect of Montana’s history.

Built in 1892 under the auspices of the Boston and Montana Company (B&M Co.), the Great Falls plant originally conducted the full spectrum of copper ore processing. However, by 1910, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company had acquired the B&M Co. and set out to reorganize its operations. Gradually phasing out the pre-refining processes of concentrating and smelting, the Great Falls plant began specializing in the refining aspects of copper processing and added an electrolytic zinc plant in 1919. (MC 169 Historical Note)
During that same year, construction of the Washoe Smelter in Anaconda was completed. In addition to designing the Great Falls smelter twenty-seven years earlier, Frank Klepetko (MC 389 Biographical Note) designed the tallest (585 feet) brick structure in the world at the time. It is believed that the Washoe Smelter - “The Stack” - still holds that record and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gen. [General] View of Plant From Across River (File card: "… of Plant From South East From …"), 
[Great Falls, Montana]. July 18, 1928.
Catalog #PAc 81-34.3076

Unfortunately, the Great Falls stack was demolished on September 18, 1982 and nothing remains of any building in the once vast complex. However, with the aid of this photograph collection and its descriptive text, we can learn much about its different phases of operation. Depicting the people, the place, and the processes of this industrial facility over the years, we may be inspired to take a closer look at this rich photograph collection and its ancillary collections*.

*For further investigation, the Anaconda Mining Company archival collection, MC169, provides much documentation about the company’s history and the people who worked there, including a list of employees who were missing or were killed in World War II action. For those Anaconda, Butte, and Great Falls employees not on the battlegrounds of that war, the Copper Commando  newsletter was published to illustrate the importance of their contribution to the war effort and features stories and images of employees, housewives, and schoolchildren.

Additionally, you can see the demolition of the Great Falls stack by watching this KRTV program.