It would be hard to overestimate the economic importance that the Anaconda Co. played in Montana for decades, says retired University of Montana history professor David Emmons.
“It was the fourth-largest corporation in America, and it employed probably 25,000 to 30,000 Montanans at its peak” in copper mining, smelting and refining, railroad operations, logging and wood products and even operating four of the state’s five largest newspapers, he said.
“At one time probably one-third of the paychecks that went out in the state were written on Anaconda Co. accounts,” he said. “The company’s significance in Montana was enormous. I don’t know of any other state where a single company was that dominate economically.”
The Anaconda Co. and its predecessor, Amalgamated Copper Mining Co., produced a huge amount of copper in Montana — 3 billion pounds between 1880 and 1980, Emmons said.
In 1910 Amalgamated changed its name to Anaconda Copper Mining Co. and purchased Boston & Montana Consolidated Copper and Silver Mining Co., which had built a smelter in Black Eagle across the Missouri River from Great Falls. The Great Falls plant was used to refine metals mined in Butte and smelted in Anaconda.
For decades the company paid the highest scale U.S. wages — it was known as the Butte scale — for semi-skilled industrial workers, Emmons said. It was $3.50 a day initially and later pegged to the price of production, with good workers earning as much as $6 a day by 1920.
“The wages that Anaconda Co. paid its Butte, Anaconda and Black Eagle workers were certainly as good as any semi-skilled industrial workers could get anywhere in the country,” he said. “They didn’t pay those wages because they were being philanthropic. The work was dangerous, hot and difficult. The cost of living was higher in Montana back then and unions insisted on and got good wages.”
The Anaconda Co. wages in the 1940s and 1950s were the equivalent of $27,000 to $34,000 in today’s dollars, and were twice the per capita income for Montana as a whole.
Great Falls History Museum Director Jim Meinert’s research indicates Anaconda Co. workers in Black Eagle were paid about $7,500, plus benefits, in 1972, at a time when the per capita average was $4,717 in the United States and $4,350 in Montana.
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