The legacy of the poisoned Clark Fork 

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And here's an ugly rub: Opportunity was born to die. In the early 1900s, farmers and ranchers in the encompassing Deer Lodge valley sued the Anaconda Mining Company for causing the shriveled crops and dead livestock in their fields, felled—the farmers believed—by arsenic poisoning. They were joined by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, whose federal timber was dying in swaths downwind of the smelter stack. In 1904, with the Anaconda smelters producing 20 percent of the nation's copper, the farmers filed suit.

The Anaconda Company stalled its way past Roosevelt and bought out the farmers—they'd been mocked in company-owned newspapers as "smoke farmers"—to insulate itself from liability. In 1914, the company drained part of that land and carved it into 5- and 10-acre plots and sold them off to smelter workers. Opportunity was advertised as a "garden community" where citizens tired of the industrial bustle of Anaconda could retire in peace. Terms were good, and the company promised that if the man of the house died in the middle of his mortgage, the company would forgive the loan and give title to the widow. The Butte Miner praised Opportunity as "one of the most successful welfare systems ever introduced by a big industrial company," and declared that the area was "destined to become an important dairy and stock section."

By 1914, the Anaconda smelter had already been pouring its poison down Opportunity's drain for four years. It's unlikely any early Opportunarians thought they were buying into a Garden of Eden.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

It's too easy to blame a mining company now three decades dead. It's too easy to blame the faceless oil company that inherited the mess and wants to keep its costs down. The cell phone on which I made my appointment with George Niland runs on copper. Fifty pounds of copper power the truck in which I drive my canoe to the poison banks of the Clark Fork. I like electric lights, and I'm exceedingly fond of refrigeration and hot water. Just try and take it away from me. Just try and deny it to China and India, where copper-fueled industrialization is ramping up to surpass the scale that denatured the Clark Fork and required the sacrifice of Opportunity.


Earlier this year, I got the chance to teach writing to high school kids in rural Oregon for a couple of months. During show-and-tell one day, I told them the story of Opportunity and showed them some slides. I asked them to write a persuasive essay about what they would do with a landscape-sized mess they suddenly had to get rid of. A notable minority, exhibiting a flair for final solutions and enviable disregard for the price of rocket fuel, suggested shooting it into space.

The impulse to just make it go away is ingrained, but the Opportunity Ponds aren't going anywhere. It would cost too many billions of dollars to move the tailings, and even if the money were there, where would you put them? What would you sacrifice instead?

This spring, I moved downstream to Bonner, across the Blackfoot from the now-defunct timber mill once powered by the now-removed dam, just downstream from where the reservoir used to be. I've spent my mornings walking up the Blackfoot, watching construction crews on the other side of the river dig out a PCB-laden pond on the mill property. By the time I got here, they'd already removed a low-head log-ponding dam and re-contoured the riverbank under an expansive slope of blond seed mat.

I hadn't been here long when the water started rising. Removing the dams lowered the water level, exposing thousands of long-drowned logs lodged in the Blackfoot's bed. Then a heavy snowpack melted off the mountains and pushed the river past flood stage, flushing out the logs. The brown water raced downstream, roiled under the Interstate 90 bridge to pile into the Clark Fork, and legged west toward Missoula.

The Clark Fork is named for William Clark, of Lewis and, but another William Clark—William Andrews Clark—put a more permanent stamp on it. In 1908, W. A. Clark built the dam in Milltown to power his Bonner mill. And in 1908, another heavy snowpack pelted with spring rain sent a 100-year flood raging down the Clark Fork, scouring the floodplain and taking out bridges in downtown Missoula. It was that flood, more than any high water that followed over the next century, that blew Butte's slag piles and tailings heaps downstream, where they settled out on the reservoir floor behind the then-new dam. Those were the sediments that eventually seeped into the aquifer, poisoning wells and sparking the Superfund designation that finally led to the dam's removal in 2008 and the restoration work that continues today. Those are the sediments that now top Opportunity's ponds.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRAD TYER

Aside from an ornate Butte mansion now operating as a B&B, Clark's physical legacy in Montana disappeared with the dam. His copper profits—he was raking in an estimated $12 million a year in his early-20th century heyday—left the state to build an opulent Manhattan palace and an art collection now housed in the Clark Wing of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Just a few months ago, less than a year after the Clark Fork flowed freely for the first time since he'd stoppered it, Clark's youngest daughter died. Huguette Clark was 104 when she passed away in a New York hospital on May 24. She'd come into the world a year before her daddy's dam was built, and she'd outlasted it by three. She hadn't been photographed in 80 years, and spent the last two decades of her life behind a thick blanket of privacy, collecting fine French dolls and cared for by nurses in an anonymous hospital room while multimillion-dollar mansions in California, Connecti-cut and New York sat empty. She left a fortune, primed for a squabble, estimated at half a billion dollars.

Huguette's hermitude was breached last year when Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter at MSNBC, published a series of articles exploring her family history and raising questions about the lawyers who represented her finances and shielded her from family and strangers alike. The article briefly resuscitated the story of William A. Clark, once toe-to-toe with John D. Rockefeller as the richest man in America, but long since forgotten outside Montana.

When Huguette involuntarily re-emerged, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer wrote her a letter, asking her to steer some of her fortune back to Montana, the source of so much of it. He never got a reply.

The day before Huguette died, it turned out, Butte schoolchildren had started their own letter-writing campaign. They want a slice of the family fortune to rebuild Columbia Gardens, a Butte amusement park built by William A. in 1899 that burned to the ground in 1973 in what was widely presumed an act of arson intended to make way for the encroaching Berkeley Pit strip mine of Clark's corporate successors, the Anaconda Company. A newspaper article quoted the kids' teacher saying they wouldn't let Huguette's demise stop them. They'd send their letters to the lawyers.

One wishes them luck without holding out much hope. As the citizens of Opportunity know better than most, you don't get anything—not a restored river, not one red cent—for free.

This story originally appeared in High Country News. It was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

Former Independent editor Brad Tyer's first book, Opportunity, Montana, will be published by Beacon Press in spring 2013.

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