UTEP preserves Asarco history

By on December 21, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

When the ASARCO smokestacks were toppled by 300 pounds of explosives on April 13, 2013, two towering remnants of the 100-year-old copper-smelting plant were erased from El Paso’s skyline.

The concrete chimneys also served as one reminder of the University of Texas at El Paso’s deep-rooted connection to its neighbor.

A new collection of thousands of historical records and documents from the former ASARCO site in the UTEP Library’s Special Collections Department is offering a unique insight into the plant’s operations and employees from the late 1800s to the 1990s.

The collection, titled “The Historical Records of the Former ASARCO El Paso Smelter Site,” includes approximately 13,300 oversized drawings and plans, 77 ledgers and bound copies of correspondence or indexes, four framed panoramic photos, approximately 3,500 black-and-white negatives, 250 color slides, and several hundred aerial views and maps.

“UTEP is really an appropriate home for all these records,” said Claudia Rivers, head of the Special Collections Department at UTEP. In addition to donating land and machinery to the university when it was the College of Mines and Metallurgy, ASARCO also provided hands-on learning opportunities for mining students and jobs for alumni.

“I think that preserving the paper record of the site which has now been demolished is important,” Rivers added.

In 2011, UTEP received a grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to preserve the documents that had been left at the ASARCO site after the plant closed in 1999. The site was turned over to the TCEQ in 2009 as part of a bankruptcy agreement.

Robert Puga, the trustee in charge of the site, donated the documents to UTEP.

Walter Boyle, the on-site manager, and Ed Santiesteban, a former ASARCO employee, helped with the document transfer.

The library will exhibit historical items from the former ASARCO site in spring 2015.

“Preserving ASARCO’s history is important because ASARCO’s history is El Paso’s history,” said Monica Perales, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. “Industry played a vital role in shaping the city and the region, and ASARCO was a major player in those efforts.”

For the past three years, Marissa Rogers, the project’s archivist and librarian, has gone through hundreds of map cases, filing cabinets and boxes to inventory items and write descriptions that will be used to create finding aids for the public.

“Some things were pretty interesting,” Rogers said. “Going through the negatives, you see photographs of company events. You really get an insight into the employees’ lives as workers and within the community. We have pictures of retirement parties. ASARCO had a baseball team and so we have photos of their games.”

One of the most difficult tasks for Rogers was to decipher drawings of old mining equipment. She searched documents for notes or abbreviations written by ASARCO employees. She also developed a spreadsheet of mining vocabulary.

“So much of what we had to process is so obsolete, even engineers today have no clue what it is,” Rogers said as she pulled out an electrical diagram of the facility from one of the map cases. “Over the years, I learned to recognize things.”

Rivers believes the collection provides valuable information for researchers who are interested in genealogy studies or in the history of technology in engineering.

Some of the materials have already been used to conduct research on the site’s architecture.

Payroll ledgers also offer a glimpse into the lives of ASARCO workers.

“They deducted from their pay for the hospital, housing, what they bought from the company store,” Rivers said as she flipped through a payroll ledger from December 1895. “Some of them were making $3 a day ($86 per day in 2013 dollars) and some of them were making a $1.20 per day.”

The library has already had a few requests from people who want to browse through the collection, but because of its vast size, browsing through the entire collection is nearly impossible.

“It’s very gratifying to take such a tremendous collection and turn it into something that’s usable for researchers and that will be used for many decades to come,” Rogers said.

Laura Acosta is a writer for UTEP’s Office of University Communications.

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Laura Acosta is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.