Drive just west of Salida, and you’ll see it: the 365-foot Salida Smokestack. It’s certainly in an idyllic location, its reflection caught in the placid Frantz Lake nearby, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains making an incredible backdrop. When it was completed in 1917, it was the tallest smokestack west of the Mississippi. But why was it made? When did it stop being useful? What’s the history of this dramatic building, a relic of early 1900’s America?
Historical Context: American Enters World War I
Chaffee County celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the Salida Smokestack on August 26, 2017, though it was officially “topped off” on November 14, 1917. For a little historical context, America was an incredibly different place just a hundred years ago. Your average American wasn’t driving a car. Instead, they walked or rode horses. Around half of all American families lived on farms. In the early 1900’s, only 30% of Americans owned telephones.
In addition to farm work, the mining industries were an integral aspect of the American economy, especially during times of war. Woodrow Wilson was the President of the United States in 1917, and America formally entered World War I.
World War I increases mining demand
Because of America’s recent involvement in World War I, there was an increased demand for lead and zinc which spurred demand in mines. It was during this climate that the Ohio and Colorado Smelting and Refining Company poured resources into the 365-foot Salida Smokestack that would join the rest of their plant, which had opened in 1902. And they indeed used many resources. According to Dick Dixon, the author of “Smokestack—the Story of the Salida Smelter,” the brick for the structure (not including labor) cost $43,000. Adjusted to our current times, that would add up to approximately $913,000 in bricks.
But why the 365-foot smokestack?
So why spend the equivalent of nearly a million dollars on the Salida smokestack? It all comes down to smelting.
The Salida area was found to have a high concentration of valuable ores like gold, silver, lead, and zinc. In order for these ores to be useful, they have to undergo the smelting process, which extracts useful metals from the crude ore found in the earth.
The process of smelting is relatively complex, involving multiples stages of converting the sulfides in ore into oxides, which can then be stripped of oxygen, leaving the metal behind. Once the sulfides have been stripped from the ore, the remaining concentrate is roasted at a smelting plant, which can result in toxins like arsenic and lead being released into the air.
That’s where the huge smokestack comes in.
With a short stack, these dangerous elements can simply settle nearby and poison farms. At the time, the noxious gases released as part of the smelting process resulted in intense ecological damage in Salida, with trees reportedly dying downwind of the smelter and ranchers leveling lawsuits due to sick animals and damaged crops. The 75 and 250 foot high smokestacks currently employed by the company weren’t quite high enough to disperse the toxins adequately.
The Salida Stackhouse, with its 365-foot height, was a solution to this issue. It was made to be tall enough that the toxic elements would disperse over a wide geographical area and not cause pollutants to settle in any one given spot. However, the official reason given by the Ohio and Colorado Co. was that a large smokestack could simply handle processing larger amounts of ore.
Short Lifespan for this Tall Building
The Salida Smokestack was a feat of labor and engineering. It required a concrete foundation that went 30 feet into the ground. It necessitated 264 train carloads of materials. Hundreds of men labored to elect this giant structure in less than a year. Why, then, was this building only in use for three years?
The end of World War I signaled less demand for metal and therefore less demand for smelting. Additionally, the Ohio and Colorado S & R Co. was heavily indebted and went out of business. This left the 365-foot Salida Smokestack abandoned. But the story didn’t end there. In 1972, the County threatened to demolish the Smokestack, deeming it a potential liability. Citizens organized a coalition called Save Our Stack (SOS) to prevent the County from demolishing the historic smokestack. SOS was successful, and the Salida Museum Association took up the deed to the building in 1974. In 1976, the Salida Smokestack was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visit the Salida Smokestack
The Salida Museum, which now owns the smokestack, naturally discourages climbing on and vandalizing the structure. Though they have a fence around the base, vandalism is unfortunately still a real problem. And the history of illegally climbing the smokestack goes way back to 1918 when Addie Mitchell climbed it on a dare. In 1923, Alice McQuire climbed the smokestack in the dark on a bet. But it’s not recommended: the structure can sway four to six feet in a high wind.
But there are legal, safe ways to see this behemoth in person. The Smokestack is a wayside on the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. According to the Salida Museum, There are three wayside exhibit panels at the base of the Salida Smokestack where you can learn more details about mining history in this area and see the smokestack up close and personal. Keep in mind that there is a fence around the base to protect the structure, and make sure to respect the Keep Out signs posted by the museum
The Salida Smokestack highlights an incredible time in American history, and makes for an impressive silhouette in Chaffee County. If you’re interested in seeing this towering structure, and seeing what else the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway has to offer, consider staying nearby in comfort and style. Contact us today at Creekside Chalets to make the most of your visit to an American landmark.