Copper Wars and the case for sensible regulation

The era of the Robber Barons is a fascinating time when the rich would cheat, steal, sabotage and even murder people in order to get rich.  The accounts from this era are sketchy and although the dynamics of the town of Butte in particular are rather interesting, the town itself gives a great look into what life is like without regulation and what regulation can do when applied properly.

But without going into a great detail on the robber baron angle, there are many great places to read about the politics and the fortunes being made in the town which was the king of copper in the US for a time I highly recommend this book for this endeavor if one is interested:

CB, Glasscock, “War of the Copper Kings”, copublished by Montana Historical Society Press and Riverbend Publishing.

In the case here though, I like to focus on how the regulation angle worked from the town’s perspective during this era.  The background is important because the town itself was involved during an era when the workers were peons and the people who owned the mines by this point (1890) were mostly robber barons who had bought out the original stake-holders and were investors in it for the money.

During this time, the smog from the smelting especially was a concern for a while but did not really start to get bad until 1884 with the opening of the Anaconda smelter which was the largest by far in the area.  The deaths and seasonal issues with pollution and deaths from it rose a lot especially after a few years of being subjected to it, but at first the health concern to humans was not really noticeable from normal conditions.

But the public outcry would really being in the late 1880’s and here are some accounts of it:

Page 34 (1) “In September 1890, over the objections of city officials concerned about the town’s image, the city health officer had insisted on publishing the monthly death rate.  At year’s end, he computed that for a population of thirty thousand in Butte and vicinity the death rate that year exceeded the 1889 death rates of the highly industrialized and urbanized cities of Chicago and London and almost equaled those of New York and Paris.”

Page 56 (1) “And New York, readers were told, with a population over 4 million, had a death rate of 2.5 per thousand, while Butte’s “unpleasant average” was 3.3 per thousand.”

Altogether the pollution was not regulated until the population themselves started revolting against the idea of the deaths involved, and the work mentioned goes into great detail into describing the symptoms the people suffered during this time of open air roasting as it was called which meant that the emissions of sulfur dioxide and arsenic would go directly in the air.

This was a health hazard to humans as seen from the deaths in the winter months when the smog would literally cause people to die from lung ailments from pneumonia to pulmonary causes.  The most effected were the miners and the people who had lived in Butte the longest.  However, this lead to the public rising up against this practice.  This was fought tooth and nail until finally after long consideration the town of Butte itself finally had enough and discouraged this practice and fought back with its own ordinance.  In other words, the town itself passed a law into effect or regulation to stop the senseless deaths which popular pressure was unable to stop. (1)

(2) “Public protests in the early 1890s led to passage of an anti-roasting ordinance in Butte in 1891.”

As seen in the written history of the town, the Government did not get involved at the Federal level at all until 1910 (2) and by this point the entire case of pollution and human deaths was mostly settled.  The issue here was the health of live-stock and the effects that the pollution had on the land itself.  This is a different case with the eventual conclusion of which resulted in:

(2) “In early 1918, footings for a 585-foot smokestack were laid by the Alphons Custodus Chimney Construction Company.”

And the other results was that other land that was heavily polluted was also likewise purchased and turned into parks or otherwise re-developed into things that were not as effected by the pollution. (suburbs). (2)

This is a different story with much more to debate.  Was the Government intervention really necessary after the local town did its thing in 1891?  That is the question that should be asked.  Too much regulation is obviously a bad thing and curtails industrialization which destroys good paying jobs, but not enough does ensure that companies do the cheapest route and care not one bit about those they hurt.  They may not love pollution or they may want to do the right thing, but money is always king.

During the robber baron days, the robber barons teamed up with lawyers and used the lawyers to prevent lawsuits during this time as well so that they would save money and not have to safely do things or just settle out of court on issues.  This was common practice and a form of graft, so in essence the federal level of regulation at this stage in the US was basically worthless while the local level of regulation in the long-run saved human lives.  This goes to show that local communities might be the better people to regulate the companies coming into their areas.  Having a person 2000 miles away dictating what can or can not be built-in your state does not make sense because they do not have to live next to it and the effects of the employment and the consequences of the existence of the structure are only for those who live there.

The citizens of Butte, Montana in this case decided what levels of pollution they wanted to tolerate in the end, and although it took a battle, they did win and the regulation shows that back then it worked.  Today there are many countries with no regulation such as China where heavy metal poisoning in a similar fashion as what happened in Butte in the 1880’s occurs today because China is where we mine rare earth metals and other things cheaply without expensive environmental safe-guards.

As far as worker’s rights, just remember that in China unless a disaster kills at least 20 people, it’s not even reported.  So take these truths to the bank that as much as we may want to say all regulation is bad, we can never get rid of all of it.

Just like in life, we have to find a happy medium.


(1) MacMillan, Donald. Smoke Wars: Anaconda Copper, Montana Air Pollution, and the Courts, 1890-1924: Montana Historical Society, Jan. 1, 2000. Print.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s