Smelter Town – a personal look at a ghost town firmly embedded in El Paso history
By Ernie Chacon on November 23, 2012
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.