Insomnia was driving me a little crazy. I hadn’t managed to fall sleep before 2 a.m. in over a month. Too much stress over restoration projects at my summer home in Anaconda, Montana, I suppose. Since a good night’s rest lay frustratingly outside my capabilities, I decided to get out the door and have a moonlight adventure. The only available moonlight, however, was dim and blood-red – the result of a supermoon lunar eclipse. Not the best omen for a trouble-free escapade, but my time in the Rockies was nearing an end, and a little spectacle on a cold autumn night just might make it easier to say goodbye.
Lunar eclipses can occur every six months when a full moon drifts though the shadow cast by the earth through space. The supermoon phenomenon, where the orb appears 14% larger than normal, happens when the moon glides closest to the earth in its elliptical orbit. This coincides with lunar eclipses every twenty years or so. 14% might not seem like much of an enhancement, but supermoons are also 30% brighter, which I thought would help with navigation during tonight’s escapade - a visit to the gargantuan Anaconda Smelter Stack, atop the hill southeast of the city.
Of course, the extra moonlight would only materialize once the eclipse was over. Too impatient to wait, I began the journey in darkness, walking carefully away from the edge of town through the railroad graveyard, where hundreds of train tankers rusted silently on parallel tracks, waiting for a surge in the extractive economy that will likely never come again.
Between 1883 and 1980, these rails brought copper ore from mines across the state, and smelters in Anaconda crushed and transformed the rock to produce pure copper and other precious metals critical to American industrialization. The smelting process required multiple flues and smokestacks to vent the fumes of the massive furnaces. At the time, the technology did not exist to scrub these gases of particulates, so lead and arsenic settled across the surrounding lands and contaminated the soils, damaging crops and sickening livestock. Farmers complained, leading to the construction of the Big Stack in 1919 – a 585-foot monstrosity that has kept the title of the world’s tallest freestanding brickwork structure for the last hundred years. This new chimney only served to disperse the toxic gases over a wider area; it did not ultimately solve the contamination issue. Environmental concerns were only significantly addressed after the last smelter shut down in 1980 and the region became a federal Superfund project.