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Many towns in the northern Rockies take their names from the local wildlife. Buffalo, Wyoming, after the shaggy bison that once roamed the plains in huge herds. Salmon, Idaho, after the glistening trout that swim the swift mountain streams. Deer Lodge, Montana, after the fleet-footed deer that leap through the forests and destroy the crops. And Anaconda, Montana, after the mighty snake, so enormous it can swallow the aforementioned deer whole.

Wait, that's not right. The city of Anaconda was named after the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which was named after the Anaconda mine in nearby Butte. The mine, in turn, took its name from a military maneuver executed by Ulysses S. Grant in the War Between the States, which, finally, was the namesake of the humongous South American constrictor. The city's founder, mining magnate and so-called "Copper King" Marcus Daly, was an uneducated Irish immigrant who probably didn't know what an anaconda was.

If none of this makes any sense, bear with me. Anaconda was a company town. Unlike its neighbor Butte, which grew chaotically by the influx of miners and speculators, Anaconda was founded by one man, Marcus Daly, for one purpose: to smelt the copper ore coming out of the mountain at Butte. In its heyday, the city was the largest copper smelting locale on the planet. Now it's an economically depressed area with serious environmental problems, an aging and dwindling populace, and a brand-new golf course.

The mine (the one in Butte that made Daly's fortune, that is) was named by its discoverer, a Civil War veteran named Michael Hickey who had read a newspaper account of Grant's army encircling Lee's, comparing the Union forces to an anaconda suffocating its prey. (A poetic metaphor, certainly, but remember that journalistic standards were higher before the advent of USA Today.) Hickey liked the word enough to name his mine after it. Daly, after buying the mine, liked the word enough to use it for his company, and the city in turn.

The Anaconda smelter operated from 1884 to 1980, bringing in scads of money and pouring out scads of pollution. The town grew and prospered, as poor immigrant workers were willing to accept awful air in exchange for good-paying jobs. Many impressive-looking buildings were erected, some by Daly himself, who was rather civic-minded as industrial tycoons go. I suspect, though, that this civic-mindedness might've had something to do with Daly's political ambitions - he was conducting a rather underhanded campaign to have Anaconda named state capital (it didn't work). The most prominent structure, though, was the 535-foot tall smokestack at the smelter, which was left standing after the operation shut down and is apparently the largest free-standing masonry structure in the world. It dwarfs everything in sight but the mountains themselves.

After Daly's death in 1900, the Anaconda Company was unable to find another charismatic leader, and slowly evolved into a vaguely disturbing, faceless corporate entity of the sort that would come to subjugate the American political system. The company was eventually bought out by ARCO. (which, incidentally, has its own namesake company town in Idaho, better known for nuclear reactors than for copper). The mines at Butte kept producing ore, though, and the Anaconda smelter kept smoking away. It was eventually fiscal concerns, rather than the absence of raw material, that brought about its closing - the price of copper was no longer high enough to justify continued production.

At the smelter's closing, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site. Researchers found all sorts of scary toxic things in the air, water, soil, including high concentrations of arsenic. Residents near the smelter were evacuated, and cleanup began. In an ill-conceived ploy to replace industrial money with tourist dollars, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course was built over what had been one of the most polluted areas. Why anyone would come from out of town to play golf in sight of a huge smokestack and heaps of slag is beyond me, particularly when a good couse exists in clean, quiet Three Forks, an hour or so down the road. The city's chamber of commerce is currently promoting Anaconda as a recreational destination with a large "historical" district, but I can't imagine they'd be having any great success.

Anaconda's population declines every year, as retirees die off and no jobs await those who would replace them. Real estate in the city can be had very cheaply. Culturally, it's similar to Butte - the typical resident is a working class, socialist, Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry, with a drinking problem. With the smokestack no longer smoking, the air is clean and there are some nice views of the mountains, though I wouldn't trust the water. Many of the locals still take pride in their hometown, despite its plight. It seems inevitable, though, that Anaconda will gradually be abandoned, a former company town whose dominant industry cannot be replaced.

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