Ores to Metals - The Rocky Mountain Smelting Industry

Author: James E. Fell Jr.

Publishers Description:
This comprehensive treatment of the smelting industry of Colorado, originally published in 1979 and now back in print with a new preface by the author, details the people, technologies, and business decisions that have shaped the smelting industry in the Rockies.

Although mining holds more of the glamour for those in and interested in the minerals industry, smelting has played a critical role in the industry’s evolution since its introduction into Colorado in the 1860s. At that time, miners desperately needed new technology to recover gold and silver from ores resistant to milling. Beginning as small independent enterprises, progressing to larger integrated firms working in urban centers, and finally following a trend toward mergers, the entire industry was absorbed into one large holding company–the American Smelting and Refining Company. Over time, fortunes were won and lost, business success was converted to political success, and advances were made in science and technology. Drawing on archival material, Fell expertly presents the triumphs and troubles of the entrepreneurs who built one of the great industries of the West.

When Ores to Metals arrived in the mail I immediately placed it at the top of my book list. Smelting is a topic that is rarely covered in mining history books, which is strange considering that the mining industry in many areas would not have existed without an accompanying smelting industry. Mining has left an enduring legacy in numerous visible shafts, tunnels, tailings piles, headframes, and other surviving signs of the industry. In contrast, very little of the smelting industry has survived. Most smelters have been completely removed and built over as part of expanding urbanization in places like Denver and Pueblo. More remote smelters were torn down long ago and even the telltale slag piles removed as part of environmental remediation projects. All that remains today of the great Gilded Age smelting industry is an occasional smokestack or slag pile. The history of the industry has fallen into such a state of obscurity that it is easy to forget completely, and in the minds of the general public and the casual western historian – smelting is not even held as a curiosity. The history of the smelting industry is both fascinating and important in the overall history of western mining, and for those reasons I was very excited to dig into this detailed study of the elusive smelter.

Ores to Metals focuses on the smelting industry that emerged to treat complex ores from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The book details four primary periods in the life of the smelting industry: birth of the industry, relocation to the plains, consolidation, and ultimately the decline and death of the industry.

The Colorado Gold Rush started in 1859 with thousands of people flocking to the the Rocky Mountains on news of gold discoveries. However by the early 1860’s the initial boom waned as the easily-processed surface ores were exhausted and more complex ores were encountered at depth. These complex ores were resistant to traditional milling methods and the mining industry essentially ground to a halt as precious metals could not be extracted economically.

In 1868 Nathanial Hill built the first successful Colorado smelter at Blackhawk. Hill’s smelter brought the local gold industry back to life, and a lucrative new industry was created. What followed was an ongoing saga of numerous startup smelters – most of them failures – throughout the Colorado mining districts. The great silver boom at Leadville in the 1870’s resulted in the need for a new class of smelters – those designed for complex lead-carbonate ores. The scale of the mining at Leadville was so great that at the peak of smelting activity, Leadville had 15 smelters.

Infiltration of rail lines into the rugged Colorado mining districts brought wholesale change to mining in the high country. Mines and smelters were now free to ship ores to more distant smelters, increasing competition among the smelters. Smelters were now able to import coal in large quantities into their mountain operations, easing the fuel shortages caused by the widespread deforestation that resulted from the smelters voracious hunger for fuel. Shipping coal from distant coal fields into the mountains was expensive however, and it wasn’t long before the smelting companies were eyeing locations like Denver and Pueblo for new smelting operations. Smelters built on the plains offered enormous advantages in lessened transportation costs, larger workforces, and weather for conducive to year-round operation. The 1880’s saw much of the smelting industry move to Denver and Pueblo.

Smelting became a massive industry that was primarily controlled by a few key industrialists: Nathaniel P. Hill, August R. Meyer, James B. Grant, and the Guggenheim family. As competition increased, and mine production decreased, many smelters failed and many more struggled to stay profitable. A great wave of mergers commenced that culminated in backing by New York interests including the Rockefellers and the creation of ASARCO (the American Smelting and Refining Company) – a company that dominated the remaining smelting industry for almost a century.

By the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the great mines of Colorado were waning. Ore production could not support the numerous smelters and operations were consolidated to just a few locations. By WWI the smelting industry was essentially dead with just a few smelters left in operation. Ironically, it was Leadville’s AV smelter, one of Colorado’s oldest, that survived the longest. It was closed in 1960 and the Colorado smelting industry finally drew its last breath.

Ores to Metals is a detailed study of the Colorado smelting industry but it is also an enjoyable book to read. The book is packed with people, places, and mines that are recognizable to the casual historian. This keeps the book contextually interesting when it could have drowned the reader in the tedium of endless facts, figures, and dates. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in mining history or the history of Colorado.