Not many developers would spend money and effort to remind potential customers that the ground on which their buildings are being built has a long, heavy industrial legacy.
But the builders of Point Ruston, the $1 billion-plus residential and retail center being erected on the site occupied for more than 90 years by one of the Northwest’s most notorious industries — the Asarco copper smelter — are doing just that.
The smelter’s nine decades of production on a waterfront site near Point Defiance Park in Tacoma and Ruston not only left the smelter property contaminated with heavy metals, including arsenic, but also created a colorful history deeply embedded in development of two cities.
Now, 31 years after the smelter ceased production and after millions of dollars of cleanup efforts, the site’s developers are opening a history exhibit dedicated to the thousands of smelter workers who made their living at the sprawling complex.
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“We’re not turning our backs to the history,” said Loren Cohen, legal adviser to MC Construction, which is remaking the site. “We named our first building Copperline and our single family homes development Stack Hill to reflect the activities that happened on this site for so many decades.”
Point Ruston is having a grand opening of a history exhibit it calls the Asarco History Hall in ceremonies beginning at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Copperline Apartments. Both former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, himself an ex-Asarco worker, and Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan will speak at the event.
The hall occupies two corridors at the Copperline. The exhibit includes museum-quality artifacts from the smelter and from Ruston, which during Asarco’s heyday was virtually a company town for the smelter. The exhibit shows historic photos of the smelter layout, enlarged pictures of the smelter’s belching furnaces and mementos of life near the smelter, which employed about a thousand workers at peak production.
A vintage dynamite plunger triggers a video of the 1993 controlled demolition of the smelter’s 562-foot-tall smokestack. The exhibit will be free to the public.
Baarsma, who worked at the smelter for four summers while attending college, said the smelter was an integral part of his family history. His father, Clarence, worked at the smelter for three decades before dying of lung cancer at 58. The former mayor and retired University of Puget Sound professor said his father’s career at the smelter, and his father’s smoking, no doubt brought on his early demise.
The smelter, recalled the former mayor, was a demanding and dangerous workplace.
“When I went to work there right out of high school, I was a boy. Four summers there made me a man,” he said.
Baarsma recalls coming home after a day at the smelter and stripping off his clothes to take a bath.
“My stomach was green from the copper. After I soaked in the tub, the water turned green like soup,” he said.
The smelter processed ore mined in South America, producing not only copper but also gold, silver and other precious metals. The Asarco smelter was one of a few smelters in the world that could process ore with a high arsenic content. That arsenic was bagged and sold to manufacturers of wood preservatives, insecticides and pigments. The arsenic released in the smelting process also caused one of the smelter’s more difficult legacies, trace arsenic contamination of properties downwind of the smelter.
The smelter’s huge blast-furnace-like converters created huge quantities of molten metal that were poured from the furnaces into large ladles that were transported across the smelter by overhead cranes.
The molten waste from the smelting process called slag was loaded aboard a short train of rail cars and shuttled out of the smelter to a peninsula near the present Tacoma Yacht Club where the slag was dumped in the bay.
Much of the slag that didn’t end up in the bay was pulverized and sold to Tacoma Tideflats industries, who used it to stabilize their muddy work yards. Cohen said much of that slag also was used as underlay for the original Interstate 5.
As a summer worker, Baarsma recalled clearing the ports of a device that injected air into the converters. Slag would often clog those ports. When workers like himself used long rods to clear those ports, hot slag often would shower the nearby area around the converter, he said.
The smelter employed a doctor full time to tend to the wounds and injuries of smelter workers.
“This was Dante’s Inferno inside the smelter,” said Baarsma.