Montana 1 Scenic Drive: Anaconda, Big Smokestack

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If you didn’t get your fill of a quirky, wild-west mining town in Butte, good news.  More authentic western towns are up ahead, on a scenic loop drive that’s not far away.  And as a bonus, you get to see a significant landmark — a towering monument to the area’s mining industry.  It all awaits on Montana Route 1, the Pintler Scenic Byway, starting with the city of Anaconda.

Location

Anaconda, Montana is located along Montana Route 1, also known as the Pintler Scenic Byway.  MT-1 provides an alternate route to Interstate 90, northwest of Butte, connecting the towns of Anaconda, Philipsburg, and Drummond.  The Anaconda Smelter Stack is on the east end of town, just south of MT-1.

My Visit

I had the whole day to get from Butte to the Glacier Park area, and I could choose between a couple of routes.  The slightly easier, slightly shorter route would take me up Interstate 15, then over to my motel in East Glacier Park Village.  But who wants to spend a whole day on an Interstate?  Instead, I took the more scenic route, that included the Pintler Byway, the ghost town of Garnet, and the Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive.  It would add a few hours and some extra miles, but I figured it would be worth it.

The first attraction on my way into Anaconda was the town’s namesake smokestack — more accurately, the Anaconda Smelter Stack.

This relic of a bygone era was part of a much larger complex (now gone), where copper was processed.  The smelter stack measures about 585 feet tall – as high as a 58-story building – but when viewed from the highway, it doesn’t seem nearly that big, because there isn’t anything around to add some perspective.  And there isn’t much of a point in trying to get any closer.  The surrounding land is now protected as a state park, but the soil is too contaminated to allow visitors to hike up to it.  You can visit the park (and pay an admission fee), but you won’t get much closer.

The Anaconda Smelter Stack is, arguably, the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world.  That “arguably” part involves the closest competition: the Washington Monument in D.C., and the San Jacinto Monument near Houston.  The Washington Monument is taller, only if you count its aluminum cap.  Also worth noting, the Washington Monument isn’t technically masonry, because it doesn’t use mortar to hold the blocks together.  The San Jacinto Monument is shorter than the Washington Monument unless you count its base.  And if you start counting bases, the Anaconda Stack gains an extra 30 feet.  

I was satisfied with the view of the smelter stack from the side of Route 569 (turn at the sign for Wisdom, then go a short distance south).  So, I headed on into town.

Anaconda

Route 1 splits and becomes one-way, passing through town on Commercial and Park Avenues.  You’ll want to turn down Main Street to see the historic business district.

The old Montana Hotel used to be a centerpiece for the town, and maybe someday it will be again.  When it was built in 1888, it was four stories tall, plus four cone-shaped turrets on the rounded corners.  The hotel fell into disrepair in the 1970’s, according to a 2017 article in the Montana Standard, and the owner removed the two top floors in order to protect the structure from a leaking roof.  That, I must say, is the most complicated way of fixing a leak that I’ve ever heard of.

A restoration effort in 2012 never got off the ground, but a new effort has started in 2017.  It will take a lot of money — something that is now in short supply in the post-mining era.

Anaconda’s downtown is rich with other reminders of its past, like a bold Chesterfield Cigarettes ghost sign…

… or this much more ghostly sign for sliced bread.

It looks like the Washoe Theater is still showing movies.  The theater was built in 1936, and features an art-deco interior.

Yet another old town awaits, just up the road.  And in between here and there…

… you can enjoy a beautiful stretch of scenic highway.  I’ll show you more of the Pintler Byway on the next page.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive from Anaconda, through Philipsburg, to Drummond, on the Pintler Byway:

The Bottom Line

If you’re willing to take the scenic route, take a detour off Interstate 90, and allow some time to explore Anaconda, along with Philipsburg up the road.  Don’t forget to notice the giant smelter stack, but avoid the entrance fee to the state park and simply enjoy the view from the road.

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