Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003)
By Jesus Delgado
Once a thriving community sat in the shadows of ASARCO's giant smoke stacks. Today, little more than a tree or two, some bricks and the cemetery remain.
Many former residents all over the country have fond memories of Smeltertown, or La Esmelda, a town erected in the 1890s on the eastern banks of the Rio Grande.
Located about two miles northwest of El Paso, Smeltertown came into being with the startup of the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company, later known as the American Smelting and Refining Company or ASARCO. While most residents of Smeltertown worked for ASARCO, some also held jobs at the El Paso Brick Plant, Portland Cement Company and the Courschene rock quarry.
Image caption: Asarco stacks tower over Smeltertown Cemetery. Photo by Jesus Delgado
In her 1996 thesis on Smeltertown, Monica Perales writes that the town, divided into upper and lower sections, El Alto and El Bajo, had further divisions or neighborhoods. Both Anglo and Mexican families lived on the hill, but ASARCO's managers and officials tended to live in company frame or brick houses, while Mexicans lived in the neighborhood called La Calavera or "The Skull."
The rest of the community built their own houses in El Bajo on parcels of land they rented or leased from various private landowners, paying as much as $15 or $20 a month.
Workers and their families began building their adobe homes at the foot of the plant in the early 1890's. The small one- or two-room buildings had dirt floors, thatched roofs and windows without glass.
But exceptions existed. Perales writes about a seven-room frame house in El Bajo belonging to Melchor Santana. The land on which it stood, however, belonged to A. Courschene. Even the most humble structure had homey details like colorful curtains, a small garden or a porch on which neighbors could gather and visit.
Wells and nearby businesses supplied water to the community. Residents pumped water into barrels and then rolled the barrels home. The smelter furnished outdoor bath facilities in the housing area for employees. Houses in El Alto were more likely to have running water, gas and electricity.
Smeltertown residents faced other hardships along the way. They had a high disease rate, and the river produced mosquitoes and occasional floods that destroyed their adobe homes. Low wages, dangerous working conditions and choking smoke and heat from the nearby plant also plagued them.
Explosions and other accidents occurred in the plants, sometimes resulting in workers' deaths. In an interview, local historian Fred Morales recalled hearing a story about a worker at the cement plant who fell into the silos, got mixed up in the cement and was never found.
Workers at ASARCO often had to deal with harsh supervisors as well. Morales stated that foremen at that time were inconsiderate and very demanding of the workers. In the Spanish vernacular, "Eran muy perros," (They were vicious dogs). According to a former resident, men worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, for as little as ten cents an hour.
Although the community experienced many privations, the predominantly Catholic community began building a church soon after they arrived. The bulk of the first residents migrated from Santa Rosalia, Chihuahua, and named their church for their home in Mexico.
Image caption: View of lower Smeltertown, or El Bajo, shows privately owned stores in the foreground and housing at the far left and back. Aultman Collection, El Paso Public Library
Jesuit priest Carlos Pinto dedicated the church in 1892, Santa Rosalia Church became the center of Smeltertown's spiritual life. The residents supported the Church and raised money to build a small house for the priest.
Its best known priest was Reverend Lourdes Costa, the visionary behind the establishment of the monumental cross atop Mt. Cristo Rey, a border landmark. Later, the Church was renamed San José del Rio or San José de Cristo Rey.
ASARCO established a company store in 1890, extending credit to employees for necessities. The company then deducted payment form workers' checks, keeping some people constantly in debt. But Perales writes that as early as 1908, some 15 privately owned stores offered goods on credit to residents, often at lower prices than the company.
People have often perceived Smeltertown as a company town, but evidence shows that the town and its residents emerged apart from its employers. Perales says that Smeltertown had its own barbershops and bakeries, small restaurants and dairies, as well as taverns, pool halls, post office and jail. Perales writes that a woman by the name of Doña Apolonia ran a small restaurant from her home near El Alto. "She owned some cows, and made extra money by making and selling asadero cheese as large as a tortilla for ten cents a piece."
According to Perales, children in Smeltertown often learned basics in private religious preparatory schools called escuelas particulares, meeting in homes and the parish hall. Although these schools existed primarily to prepare children to make their first communion, students also learned math, reading and writing in Spanish and enough English to enter county schools.
For many years, students then attended Courschene Elementary, about a mile from Smeltertown in the Puente Colorado neighborhood, now Buena Vista. If they could afford to continue their education beyond seventh grade, students attended El Paso High School. In the 1930s, E. B. Jones Elementary School provided education for Smeltertown children.
Perhaps even more important to the community was the Smelter Vocational School directed by Miguel Carrasco, Sr., and opened in 1923. Girls studied home economics; boys learned various industrial trades, thereby producing a skilled work force. The school, moreover, offered opportunities for Smeltertown's young people to socialize.
Along with the church and schools, a branch of the YMCA, established in the early 1920s, became an important social center in the lives of the residents. There, children could participate and compete in organized sports, go to movies and play games. The "Y" also sponsored a Boy Scout troop and held dances for the older youth.
Throughout Smeltertown's existence, residents described the community as "one big family." Former resident Connie Delgado said residents slept with their doors open and left their homes unlocked when they were away. Children played outside where everyone helped supervise them. Neighbors walked into the homes of others when visiting; they didn't bother to knock.
At the height of the Great Depression, Smeltertown spanned about 25 acres and the population had grown to about 5,000 residents. The population grew steadily until World War II when it slowly began to decline. One resident described Smeltertown as a "holding place" for immigrants to live until they bettered themselves. However, many considered it home and remained there until forced to leave.
In the early 1970's, the El Paso County Health district found lead in Smeltertown's soil. High levels of lead were reported in 138 children, about one fourth of the community's children. ASARCO attempted to solve the problems by scraping off an 18" layer of soil and replacing it with fresh soil, to no avail.
Residents denied any ill effects. According to Morales, some residents believed that the move was political and had nothing to do with the health of the community. ASARCO bought the land and ordered the residents to leave. In 1973, the last 100 families were given a deadline to leave their homes. Once Smeltertown was cleared, the homes were leveled.
In 1975, an injunction forced ASARCO to spend $120 million on modernizing and improving emissions. In time, the company stopped its lead and zinc smelting, concentrating on copper. In 1990, the plant spent over $81 million to increase production and further reduce emissions. ASARCO continued operations until 1999 when copper prices plummeted and 370 employees were laid off. A skeleton crew of about fifty was left to operate the plant.
While a part of the old La Calavera neighborhood still exists, the community of Smeltertown proper is just a memory for its former residents, many of whom attend an annual reunion. La Esmelda, like other ghost towns, is now only the subject of nostalgia and academic study.