If a town is more dead than alive, it's the Old West

  • A smokestack towers above the living and the dead in Ananconda

    Carl Nyman
  • Ray Ring


ANACONDA, Mont. - The gravestones stand in ranks on the hills above this old smelter town, providing hard statistics. By the 1890s, when Anaconda was only a few years old, people of European descent were already dying here. McGinty, Deslauriers, Nitschke, Dadasovich and other names of the dead indicate epic journeys.

One stone, for the Eastman family, tells a chilling story:

Judith 1899-1900

Joanna 1904-1904

Hugo 1903-1904

William 1902-1909

Mary Eide 1896-1974

John Eide 1900-1984

Just a little gray stone that gets heavier and heavier as the numbers add up: Of the six Eastman kids, three died in their first year and another only made it to seven years old. Only two of the six grew up.

The stones indicate that from the 1920s on, as the furnaces of the big copper smelter roared, larger numbers of people died - a backwards measurement of a town's boom.

The smelter shut down in 1980, the town busted, but life isn't as hard as it was in the old days. Every kid playing in the town park today isn't shadowed by two little ghosts of siblings who didn't make it. And hope is in the wind: Anaconda is trying to resurrect its economy on all kinds of New West recreation and amenities.

Recently, the world's most ironic golf course opened for business here. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the golf greens roll over the old smelter works and hazardous waste dump. Golfers have black sand traps made of slag and a view of the looming smelter stack.

There's a plan for hiking trails to go along mine-waste creeks, and a California guy, representing a bunch of parachutists, seeks permission for an even more dramatic kind of fun. The parachutists are BASE jumpers who hurl themselves off cliffs and towers, with hopes their chutes open before impact. Twenty or 30 of these modern daredevils want to come to Anaconda, climb a rusty iron ladder up the smelter stack and take off. They'd spend money while they're here, too, helping put Anaconda on the New West map.

The smelter attracts the New West customers because, like a lot of things around Anaconda, as rundown as it is, the smelter is still grand. The stack is 585 feet tall, said to be the tallest brick structure in the world - an official historic monument, thanks to the generations of workers who fed the furnaces and suffered burns and exposure to arsenic and other poisonous byproducts.

The most telling comparison of the old and new Anacondas comes from graveyard math. A survey has found more than 20,000 graves in the hills around the town. Despite all the talk about a resurrection, as historian and columnist Bob Gilluly points out, the Anaconda area today has twice as many dead as living people.

If a town has more dead residents than living residents, the town can talk any game it wishes to, but it's still Old West - still defined by its history and traditions, instead of the press of progress, hordes of newcomers moving in, outnumbering and overwhelming what made the town to begin with.

Any town can be analyzed by graveyard math, and thus located on the continuum from Old West to New West. The Montana town I live in, Bozeman, has about 6,000 people in graves and 30,000 people walking around, so Bozeman is already firmly New West. A quick tour of Bozeman turns up many trendy cafes and boutiques, but the 5:1 living-to-dead ratio quantifies and confirms it.

In big cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas that are exploding with newcomers, the living so outnumber the dead that the dead are almost invisible. By the living-to-dead ratio, the cities are radically New West.

High Country News is headquartered in Paonia, Colo., where there are about 2,200 people in local graves and about the same number living in town and on the surrounding mesas. The Paonia area still hosts a coal mine and farms, while a newer demographic has created real-estate offices up and down the main street and a movie theater that serves organic ginger ale. The living-to-dead ratio of 1:1 proves how precisely High Country News is positioned between Old West and New West.

Interestingly, the burial rate around High Country News is actually going down as the newcomers move in. In the old days, you got buried where you died, because it was harder to ship bodies cross-country. These days, you can move to some dream in the New West, take what pleasure you can in the scenery while you're alive, and when you die, you can be whisked back to where you came from, to be buried next to your moldy kin. People are less attached to wherever they live.

Here in Anaconda, you drive up the center of town, circle the courthouse and climb the hills on gracefully curving roads to reach the extensive neighborhoods of the dead. In the old days, land wasn't so pricey and the graveyards could afford to be on the best hills closely overlooking the towns.

Even today, the dead have the best views in Anaconda. Anaconda can dress itself up with golf greens and the modern economy of fun. But with a living-to-dead ratio of 1:2, it's still awesomely Old West.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears with a sidebar, "Jell-O and suicides."

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