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Murder of a Landscape: the California Farmer-Smelter War, 1897-1916.

MURDER OF A LANDSCAPE: THE CALIFORNIA FARMERSMELTER WAR, 1897-1916

By Khaled J. Bloom (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010, 240 PP., $34.95 cloth)

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IN THIS ENGAGING and well-researched book, Khaled Bloom reveals the little-known but fascinating tale of the "Smelter War," which pitted Shasta County farmers and the U.S. government against the powerful mining corporations that dominated California's fleeting copper era. Although Bloom chooses not to fit his study into broader historical or interpretive frameworks, his work nevertheless succeeds admirably as a deeply informative narrative.

Between 1895 and 1919, Shasta was home to a booming copper industry centered on the smelter towns of Keswick, Kennett, and Coram, located along the west bank of the Sacramento River above nearby Redding. Little now remains at Keswick or Coram, and Kennett lies deep beneath the waters of Shasta Lake, which inundated the site during the construction of Shasta Dam in 1941. During their successive heydays, however, Keswick and Kennett boasted populations exceeding 2,000. Driven by the soaring demand for copper wiring at the dawn of the modern "age of electricity," Keswick produced 31 million pounds of the red metal in 1901, while Kennett, responding to skyrocketing copper consumption and record prices during World War I, put out nearly 2 million pounds per month.

Unfortunately, Shasta's rich chalcopyrite ores also proved rich in sulfur that had to be burned off in open-air roasting piles and smoke-belching smelter furnaces, transforming Keswick "into a virtual Gehenna" and creating equally melancholy scenes at Coram and Kennett. Worse, the acrid vapors that billowed forth from the smelter towns contained dangerous poisons, including arsenic, sulfuric acid, sulfur trioxide, and, especially, sulfur dioxide.

Consequently, Shasta's smelter belt quickly became the focus of a sprawling "smoke zone" in which humans sickened and plants perished. Comprising a huge ellipse roughly 12 miles wide and 36 miles long, the smoke zone stretched from present-day Shasta Lake south to Anderson. Within its 1,000-square-mile area lay "the nation's largest man-made desert," a core tract of over 100 square miles straddling the Sacramento River and completely denuded of vegetation. From this barren desolation came repeated floods and massive soil erosion that dumped 35 million cubic yards of debris into the river by 1922. Soil-laden runoff continued to foul the river for decades, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation eventually spent millions of tax dollars on soil-stabilization projects designed to safeguard the storage capacities of Shasta Lake and its downstream companion, Keswick Reservoir.

Meanwhile, throughout the farther reaches of the smoke zone, airborne contaminants rained ruin on the oaks and pines of the Cascade Range and wreaked havoc on the fields and orchards of Shasta's family farmers. This destruction did not go unchallenged, and, between 1898 and 1916, the smelters produced as much litigation as they did copper.

The acrimonious Smelter War was fought on two fronts as the copper companies struggled to fend off lawsuits pressed by the federal government to protect forested public land and by the Shasta County Farmers' Protective Association (SCFPA). Despite forcing some important concessions, legal efforts failed to shut down the smelters, which finally went cold thanks only to the exhaustion of local ores and the postwar collapse of copper prices.

Shasta agriculture soon bounced back, but recovery came too late for most of the 205 SCFPA members, more than half of whom quit the region by 1920. Like the devastated landscape of the central smoke zone, the defeated farmers fell victim to a rapacious extractive industry whose wanton legacy lives on at the Iron Mountain Copper Mine, a festering federal Superfund site that continues to leak toxics into the Sacramento River today.

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL F. MAGLIARI, PROFESSOR OF HSTORY, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, CHICO, AND COAUTHOR OF JOHN BIDWELL AND CALIFORNIA: THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF A PIONEER, 1841-1900
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Author:Magliari, Michael F.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
Words:638
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