High above the dunes of black mining waste, rising tall above denuded hills, sit the stacks.
Cold since 1981, the Bunker Hill smokestacks still tower hundreds of feet above the Silver Valley. The largest stands 715 feet tall.
And where some locals see an eyesore, Brenda Auld sees a monument.
“That ‘thing on the landscape’ represents a lot of blood, sweat and toil by the miners,” she said Wednesday in nearby Kellogg, now home of Silver Mountain Ski Resort. “Before the gondola, it was the Bunker Hill Mine that made the valley.”
She and others want to save at least one stack from demolition now that is part of the Bunker Hill Superfund cleanup.
The stacks, they say, could become a miners’ monument - and tourist draw. Auld foresees a grassy park, gift shops, perhaps even a restaurant atop a stack. Already, she said, one of the best-selling postcards in Kellogg’s Silverhorn Motor Inn is a color photo of the tall stack.
Wallace mining magnate Harry Magnuson likes the idea.
“We ought to explore it before we push the button on it,” he said. “They’re part of the skyline. They’ve been there for 20 years.”
Ronald Egart compared the stacks to the Washington Monument.
“And that’s only 555-feet high,” he pointed out. “Most people, if they can find something to climb, they’ll climb it. And it would be a terrific view from the top.”
Not everyone’s so supportive. Some don’t like the stacks’ airplane warning lights, which at night cast a pulsing flash visible for miles around.
“How is it a wonderful monument? They’re just stacks - there’s nothing pretty about them,” said Lori Hughes of Kellogg. “They didn’t even put a mural on there.”
“I think they should blow them up,” said Tim Waters, of Mullan. “It (mining) turned the valley into a desert, almost. It just reminds everyone what it did to the valley.”
An informal poll of shoppers at the Kellogg IGA grocery Wednesday had shoppers split about 50-50.
“I don’t think they’re ugly at all. They’re pretty nice-looking structures, and they haven’t been around that long,” said Ron Sheppard of Kellogg. “It’d be a shame to tear them down.”
Sharon Cusumano of Kellogg said the stacks would also clash with the city’s alpine village theme.
“Blow the sucker up. Just so it doesn’t have any of that nasty stuff coming out of them,” said “Santa Bob” Bartlett of Pinehurst, who looks like his namesake. “I think they’re ugly. I think they demean the landscape.”
“Let people go in them,” said Wanda Bourgard of Kellogg. “I think it would be fascinating, myself.”
There are four big stacks, three of concrete and one of brick. The tallest two, a lead smelter stack in Kellogg and a zinc smelter stack near Smelterville, were fired up in 1977. Local historian Ray Chapman said the two cost $11 million to build.
The columns taper from about 50 feet in diameter at the base to 21 feet at the top.
They were part of Bunker Hill’s efforts to cut down on sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of ore smelting. Older, smaller stacks allowed the gas to settle in the valley.
“It used to be a real pain, because of the atmospheric inversions,” said Chapman. “It becomes biting on the nose and it was tough on vegetation.”
The tall stacks, Bunker Hill decided, could pierce the stagnant air and allow the gases to escape the valley. But they were shut down only four years after opening, with the closure of the Bunker Hill mine.
“Most people have no concept of what a smelter is like,” said Chapman. “They think ‘Oooh, it’s bad. It gives out smoke.’ But without them, we wouldn’t have appliances, cars or a lot of other things.”
Chapman would like to see at least one stack survive.
“At night, it’s kind of eerie, those flickering lights up in the fog,” he said.
If locals want to save the stacks, they’ve got until the end of the year to present a maintenance plan, said Howard Blood, remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We will not be blowing up the stacks this year,” he said Wednesday.
Maintenance, he said, consists mostly of replacing the light bulbs and paying the power bill. The EPA’s trying to get a cost estimate, he said.
The stacks are made of concrete with a fiberglass liner, he said. The liner’s contaminated, he said, but the concrete seems pretty clean. Thus, it would be possible to remove the liner and leave the stacks standing. Blood said the EPA will soon start gathering input.
If no one can put together a good plan for maintaining the warning lights, he said, the agency will blow up the stacks. As a former combat engineer, he figures they would have to be knocked over on their sides.
“There’s so much steel in them,” he said, “that it’s going to be essentially like felling a tree.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo