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The City Journals

Twenty years ago, Murray blew its stacks

Sep 08, 2020 02:22PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray’s smokestacks preside over a 1970s Independence Day Parade. (Photo courtesy of the Murray Museum)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

A whole generation of Murrayites has grown up without living under the shadow of Murray’s most iconic landmarks, the ASARCO smokestacks. Still, two decades later, the stacks’ legacy lives on as challenges to many Murray plans when it comes to development around the old smelter site.

Many Murray residents chose to ignore Mayor Dan Snarr’s pleas for everyone to stay home on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2000, and watch via television the historic smelter stacks’ implosion. After all, before GPS guided everyone precisely to their address, Murrayites had used the towering stacks as a reference point for finding home.

At 450 feet, the tallest tower stood twice as tall as Intermountain Medical Center’s Sorenson Patient Tower. The stack had a distinctive brim, distinguishing it from its shorter, blander, older brother to the south. Over time, radio antennas poked up from the rim, almost giving it a crown-like appearance. The tall stack also acted for a time as a billboard, sporting a giant Colonel Sanders face advertising Pete Harmon’s Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment.

As emblems, their demolition stirred controversy within Murray. Public outcry tried to persuade Murray City leaders that they needed to preserve the stacks in the name of maintaining the city’s historical past. As recently as March 2020, Susan Wright, who worked to save many of downtown Murray’s historic structures, told the Murray Journal, “I think we should have preserved them. We could have put a restaurant at the top of one.”

As a smokestack, the tallest tower spent most of its life without any smoke. In 1902, American Smelter and Refining Co. (ASARCO) built the largest lead smelter in the world in Murray, including the small stack. The plant could smelt 1,200 tons of lead a day, but so toxic was the air around the stack that local farmers successfully sued the smelters after their crops failed. ASARCO was forced to build the taller stack in 1918 to disperse fumes, but its last puff of smoke came in 1949. Except for one final puff when they collapsed in 2000.

While many wanted to preserve the stacks for their iconography, others viewed them in light of their toxic past. The stacks not only killed farmers’ crops and required contaminant cleanup of Bergertown (a company housing development north of the stacks) but dangerous working conditions caused large-scale strikes on numerous occasions.

Well-known Murray doctor Herond Sheranian noted in his biography that he worked his way through medical school in the smelter baghouse, cleaning the filters that captured arsenic and lead. He witnessed his own body and that of his co-workers devolving into a “mass of sores and eruptions.” Smelter workers simply called the baghouse the “hell hole.”

Yet three significant artworks pay homage to the stacks: UTA’s sculpture at the Murray Central TRAX Station, a large mural on the corner of State Street and 5300 South, and an interactive memorial garden in the footprint of the tall stack south of IMC’s tower #1. Not to mention, Murray memorialized the towers in its logo.

The implosion two decades ago did not go as planned. Instead of falling north into trenches where large sprinklers spraying water would cut down the dust, the stacks crumbled at the base, collapsing the chimneys like large telescopes and sending a plume of toxic dust over Murray High School and the Lost Creek Apartments.

The former Superfund site still reminds Murray of its toxic past. The city received recognition from the EPA for its successful cleanup of the site, capping thousands of tons of contaminated soil under the TRAX station parking lot, Cottonwood Street, and Vine Street.

Now, with the planned development of a central transportation hub at the TRAX station, developers and city planners must decide how not to disturb the contaminants capped underground decades ago. The old Ore Sampling Mill south of the stack, the last remaining building of the smelter era, still has contaminants needing to be addressed before any construction begins to refurbish that site into a business park.

With the smelter site cleaned up, Murray leaders had hoped for a large retail center to add to its sales-tax base. Except for a new Costco, that dream has never been realized since it has become home to a renowned, yet tax-exempt medical center.