The morning of April 13, 2013 will see the destruction of the ASARCO smokestacks. While the structure has never been one of beauty, it will be difficult to imagine the landscape without the overbearing height of this relic on our doorstep. The relationship between the university and the company however, has been long and complex, a love-hate relationship that offered a symbiosis to both education and industry. The institution offered classes to students of the College of Mines and Metallurgy, and twice donated parcels of land to the fledgling college that allowed for the expansion of the college into what would become UTEP. The School of Mines even used the smelter as a recruiting tool as stated in an early Texas School of Mines promotional pamphlet, “smelting students here have advantages greater than are offered anywhere else, as our students have access for study and observation to the El Paso Smelting Works.”
In 1887 Robert Towne received funding from the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company in order to build a smelter in El Paso. By 1899, the company had consolidated under the American Smelting and Refining Company, better known in El Paso as ASARCO. A controlling interest in the company was purchased by the Guggenheim family in 1901, and they would remain in control of the company until 1957.
The 828-foot landmark that is one of the most recognizable buildings in El Paso would not be built until 1966 in an effort to expel pollutants at a higher altitude. By 1985, due to lead levels found in the blood of people living nearby, the plant was only smelting copper. The zinc and lead operations of the plant had been closed down. The decrease in the price of copper in 1999 made further operations of any sort unreasonable; ASARCO closed its operation for good.
Various and abundant complaints about the smelter can be found throughout the Prospector and other El Paso media. Multiple articles are available in the university publication wherein students complained of the acrid smell in the air and shortness of breath.
However, less is known about what the company did for the good of the university. Without the land donations from ASARCO the university would not be what it is today. And the plant offered job opportunities to many who used their employment to send their children to UTEP in order to obtain a higher education. Without the employment offered by the ugly, rank neighbor, many of these degrees may not have been possible.
Many ideas have been forwarded by the people of El Paso concerning maintaining the stack as a historical site. However, budgetary concerns with the cleanup operation of the smelter are one factor in the inability to preserve the stack as such. With the stacks coming down a somewhat unattractive landmark will be removed; but the long history and familiarity of the smelter with El Paso and UTEP, provides for a melancholic, yet necessary, occasion.
To see more historic images of ASARCO, please visit http://cdm15823.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15823coll15
[Post by Matthew J. Liden; Sources: Nancy Hamilton, UTEP: A Pictorial History of the University of Texas at El Paso; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123107232, El Paso Times; The Prospector]
Matthew Liden is a student in the history master's program at UTEP.