A Writer-Photographer’s Poignant Essay about Smelter Town

Managing Editor’s Note:  In this piece by William Crawford, his photo of a cemetery in a town devastated by contamination from mining triggers a touching essay about the birth and death of a town and the melancholy words of Tom Rush, a popular folk singer-songwriter from the 1970’s.  The underlying poisoning of the town is a story that is true for so many towns across the country, even to this day. ~ Anita

 

 

Foraging Smelter Town—Finding Super Fund Origins, Tom Rush, and Death

by

William C. Crawford

 

Our Jetta died when we stopped to answer the call of nature. A text to AAA yielded the prospect of a two hour wait for a mechanic. Our luncheon foray to Sunland Park, New Mexico, was placed on temporary hold.

“Don’t worry, Crawdaddy,” clucked Jimmy Pro. “Let’s grab our cameras and check out Smelter Town.”

Little did I realize that we were marooned at the edge of tragic history, just a few miles west of El Paso.

Jimmy and our ebullient pal, Young Dave, had long ago introduced me to folk balladeer, Tom Rush. Somehow the melancholy words of his 1970 “Drivin’ Wheel” now popped into my brain, achieving an instant fit.

Well I just came up on the midnight special, how about that.
My car broke down in Texas, stopped dead in her tracks …

Smelter Town sits high on a windswept arroyo at the nexus of West Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico. The Santa Fe Railroad cuts through a rugged mountain pass, marking the only snow-free RR passage across the Rockies. Mexican workers slipped over the border here starting in the mid 1800’s. They tilled in the mines and worked in the smelter. Eventually, the town grew to more than 2,500 residents. The workers lived in stark poverty in adobe huts, often with no windows. However, the sense of community was strong.

Smelter Town was the quintessential company village.  Stores, a theater, and even a YMCA were eventually erected amidst the primitive adobe homes. San Rosalia Church was built here as a namesake for the town in Chihuahua where many of the workers were born. Extreme poverty was partially offset by tight-knit Communicado and a surprising sense of civic pride.

Jimmy and I moved methodically through the cemetery packed tightly with graves heaped with rough stones left over from past mining. Faded wooden crosses and tawdry artificial flowers helped to create an unmistakably working-class Latino motif.

The tiny, three-foot-long graves of infants lost to runaway disease and lead poisoning were a sight almost impossible for us to bear. Texas mining provided a steady if paltry wage. However, the harshest fringe benefit was the deadly lead and mercury residue which permeated the air, water, floorboards, and clothing. Everything!

Before there was Flint or East Chicago, there was Smelter Town. The mining of lead and silver flourished until around 1970 when the El Paso Public Health Department found blood lead levels off the charts in both children and adults. The New York Times published a sobering national expose detailing the contamination and chilling health effects. ASARCO finally closed the mines in 1972 when court action forced the company to recognize overwhelming scientific data and their own culpability. Momentum from public outcry over the Smelter Town eventually helped spur Congress to pass Super Fund Clean Up legislation in 1980.

Today, the January sky turned slate grey as Jimmy Pro and I plied the historic graveyard. The crisp desert air transmitted the mournful whistle of one of the four powerful diesel locomotives pulling a seemingly endless Santa Fe freight train eastward through the pass. We ploddingly shot this desert pathos until our fingers froze to our cameras.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we came across a traditionally-dressed Mexican vaquero arranging fresh roses and costume jewelry on a battered wooden cross at a rocky grave site. We exchanged solemn greetings barely audible above the whir of the sharp wind. Jimmy respectfully whispered his handle, and I responded in kind. Our new friend nervously fondled his sombrero which he had removed out of respect. “Pancho Villa,” he mumbled softly. Now, I lurched hard left so as to muffle a cynical guffaw. But then my careening gaze caught the weathered white cross with letters barely visible: Villa. Could an infamous cemetery hard by the Rio Grande harbor a vaunted ghost? Did this notorious Mexican outlaw and revolutionary have kin folk who made the northern trek here from San Rosalia?

Just then my cell phone pinged announcing a text. That damn road service mechanic was finally inbound. We said our respectful good byes to Pancho. Jimmy and I exchanged disbelieving glances as we walked out under the wrought iron cemetery sign. The Santa Fe freight’s whistle, now far to the east, drifted back to haunt us atop this cold arroyo. Tom Rush spoke to me again as he sometimes does. His laconic voice bubbled back up in my brain:

I want to tell you just how I feel …
I feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel …

 

[“Drivin’ Wheel” by Tom Rush, Columbia Records]


 

William C. Crawford is a writer and photographer based in Winston-Salem, NC. He often writes short pieces employing an emerging literary motif, Flash Photo, which develops a storyline from a compelling trigger image.  Crawdaddy also invented Forensic Foraging, a minimalist, throwback technique for modern digital photographers.

 

 

 


Disclaimer:  Please note that the views in these pieces do not necessarily represent those of Solstice Literary Magazine and are the views of the author.

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