Smelter Town – a personal look at a ghost town firmly embedded in El Paso history

Ernie Chacon

EL PASO  – Smelter Town, a deserted ghost town on the north side of the Rio Grande inhabited for a century starting in the late 1880s by residents who worked for the copper smelting company that would become ASARCO has no inhabitants but is loaded with history.

In learning about my family and Smelter Town, I found out that my great, great grandma is buried in Smelter cemetary. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

In learning about my family and Smelter Town, I found out that my great, great grandma is buried in Smelter cemetary. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

I was born in the late 1980s and I had heard stories from my grandma about her time living in Smelter Town when I was young. Of course, then I was a child who didn’t care about any of those things. I just wanted to play videogames, or run around outside pretending I was Indiana Jones with my rope which I imagined was the famous whip from the movies.

I do remember news stories that were being reported about ASARCO in the 90s. Again, I really didn’t care about what was being reported about the plant, but I do remember some specific pieces about the story.

ASARCO was finally shutting down its plant after being in El Paso for more than 100 years. At the time I didn’t realize the importance of the history of the old plant. People were debating whether to keep the smoke stacks or to tear them down I could have cared less.

I started learning about ASARCO and Smelter Town during my high school years. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com_

I started learning about ASARCO and Smelter Town during my high school years. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com_

During my years in high school I read up on some of the history books that detailed the history and connection between ASARCO and Smelter Town for a class assignment. While I was reading some of the books, I found out how important that town was to those who lived there.

It wasn’t until I began my freshman year in college that it really piqued my interest and I learned a lot more than just the history of Smelter Town. I learned about my own family history in that place. My history professor assigned the class a group project and my group was instructed to give a presentation on the history of Smelter Town and ASARCO. That class project gave me the opportunity to have a talk with my grandma about her days living in Smelter Town.

My grandma was born in Smelter Town and lived there until 1945. The reason she moved was because my great grandma had wanted her own house outside of Smelter Town. My grandma told me about my three uncles who had worked at ASARCO and about my great grandpa who also worked there.

The now permanently closed entrance to ASARCO and Smelter Town. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

The now permanently closed entrance to ASARCO and Smelter Town. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

“It was very peaceful and the neighbors were friendly. We all got along in that town,” my grandma explained to me. She talked about the health scare in the 1970s that caused the small town to officially close because of the fear that lead poisoning was affecting the people who lived there.  My grandma didn’t believe in the reports though. I also learned that my great, great grandma is buried at the cemetery in Smelter Town.

While I was listening to the stories my grandma was telling me, it made me realize just how important it was to learn about your family history. It opened my eyes to another world and I was able to see a different side to my family. It helped me to learn things about myself and about the culture I grew up in. Hearing those stories also made me realize things about my city that I never knew before. Seeking out my family history even helped me discover other relatives that I had never met.

During my junior year at college one of my instructors told me about a project that was being done by Roberto Avant-Mier, a professor in the UTEP Communication department, I am currently majoring in Multimedia Journalism and I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to take on the project as it would help me better myself as an investigative journalist.

It’s interesting what learning about your family history can do for you. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

It’s interesting what learning about your family history can do for you. (Ernie Chacon/Borderzine.com)

While doing the project I had met up with the professor who was in charge of doing the project and we talked for a while and explained why we were interested in doing the project about Smelter Town. When we both found out we were interested in history of Smelter Town because of family members who had lived there, it led to an interesting discovery. Avant-Mier, the professor I was working with on the project, turned out to be a long-lost distant cousin of mine.

It’s interesting what learning about your family history can do for you. For me it helped to discover another side to my grandma’s life and it also connected me to long-lost family members I had never met. The funny thing is my professor/cousin found out we had a lot in common. We both were in the same department and we both enjoyed writing. I think it’s important to learn about your family history because it not only helps you learn about your family, but it also helps you to learn something about yourself.

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8 Comments

  • Ludivina Reyes says:

    Hi Ernie, while you learned about ASARCO and Smeltertown I on the other hand lived that thru personal experience. You see I lived in Smeltertown, but we grew up knowing it and calling it La Calavera. I lived from the age of five years until I was fourteen years of age. It was not a happy experience for me, I never wanted to bring friends to my house if that is what you can call it, it also had its repercussions, you see my mother died six years ago of pulmonary repercussions. I tell my friends of this awful place of my childhood, and even though I explain it with great detail, you had to be there to believe that such a place is on this side of border and not some far away third world country.

  • Rose Vara Shisido says:

    Hello I was researching for information on the little neighborhood just south of Smelter Town my mom used to call it “El Fuerte” it was the Old Fort Bliss I was raised there and remember some of it. I think there is a car dealership there now also remember a motel 2 lots from there, also after that was the Rio Grande which also ran in back of the Fort Bliss there also was a bridge which we walked on I remember half of it was wooden and the train went under it and remember that the train stopped right across the hwy to be filled with ice my brothers worked there I remember they carried there huge ice tongs to work. Well I would like to know more about this area do you think you can help maybe find some pictures of it area to show my grand children and great grand children? Thank you for your time and enjoyed your presentation on Smelter Town I too remember it in the late forties and early fifties my sister lived there they owned a gas station right on the highway awesome gas pumps I see they are very collectible now!!!

  • Ernie Chacon
    Ernie Chacon says:

    Hi Rose, sorry I am responding a bit late. I am also searching for old photos of the Smelter Town area; unfortunately I am having a hard time finding some. I have pictures that I took recently, but I do not have any old photos if that’s what you were looking for. I can leave you my email and we can work together in finding some if you’d like.

  • ROBERT ALONZO says:

    I GREW UP IN CALIFORNIA.AM HERE IN EL PASO VISITING FAMILY 10-25-13 .
    SEEKING INFO & PICS OF SMELTER , PARENTS AND RELATIVES.
    INTERESTING HISTORY.

  • Aletor says:

    So.. after reading this, i realized it has minimal information on Smelter Town.

  • Dan Gray says:

    Ernie, my grandfather was the Janitor at the Jones school that was located in the back of smelter town. My family the Escandon’s were all born and raised in smelter town. They arrived there in 1900. I was the first and last grandchild to come and live in smeltertown. We moved in 1972, I was only 4yrs old. My Grandfather passed and Smelter town shut down a year after his death. For pictures I would contact Mike Cortez. He was also a long time resident of Smelter town. He has pics in his web sight Familia Cortez. Good luck , and I am so glad you took an intrest in a town that was for many home for so many years.

  • Javier says:

    We moved away from there when I was about 6 months old in 65. My aunt and uncle used to own the bar Joe’s Place and the small store there. I remember going to visit them and playing in the playground in the field across from the store.

  • Patricia Chavez says:

    All of the comments are very interesting to me. My grandfather worked at the smelter in about 1908. According to family stories, his foot was injured when an iron cart rolled over it. I am writing my family history and am trying to document my grandfather’s time at Smelter Town. Does anybody know if ASARCO has made its employee records available – maybe to genealogy groups?

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