Neighborhood NewsHelena - Lewis and Clark County


East Helena Smeltermens Picnic planned for July

East Helena Smeltermens Picnic
Posted at 5:28 PM, Mar 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-21 17:55:42-04

EAST HELENA — Those who lived in East Helena before the 2000s know just how impactful and ingrained ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company, was in the community.

It’s been more than two decades since operations stopped at the plant, but some smeltermen are working to reconnect with their former coworkers and reignite some history.

Jim Adolph worked at the East Helena ASARCO Site for 22 years and is leading the charge to bring the former workers back together.

“We find ourselves a quick 23 years down the line,” said Adolph. “The smelter is gone and some of the employees are gone also. So we’ve decided to put together an East Helena Smeltermens Picnic."

The Smelterman’s Picnic will be held at Main Street Park following the East Helena Rodeo parade on Saturday, July 13th.

The picnic is open to all former ASARCO employees, their families and anyone interested in East Helena history. People are welcome to bring a chair and a lunch for the event. Organizers are also working on getting some food trucks to stop by.

Jim and Tom, former ASARCO employees

“We just want to say hello again to our former friends and workers and kind of reeducate the area to what ASARCO did mean,” Adolph noted, “And all of us old guys have a few old stories to tell.”

The Helena and Livingston Lead Smelting Company built the large smelter on the banks of Prickly Pear Creek in 1888. ASARCO purchased the operation in 1898.

The custom smelter processed lead ore into bullion which was further refined at other facilities.

The town of East Helena grew around the operation.

ASARCO pictures in East Helena City Hall

“My grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1920s with the idea of going to work in East Helena,” said Tom Tenneson, third-generation smeltermen and former union leader at the East Helena ASARCO site. “My dad was born and raised there so in the 1940s my dad went to go work at the smelter and in 1979 I went to work at the smelter and I had a sister that worked there in the lab.”

Tenneson and his family's generational connections to ASARCO are not an unusual story for families living in East Helena. The smelter paid well and was a driving economic force in the area.

The company even had a baseball team called the Smelterites. Country singer Charlie Pride was a pitcher on the team while he lived in Helena.

WATCH: 2020 MTN interview with Charlie Pride about baseball career

2020 MTN interview with Charlie Pride

After decades of operations, the East Helena site was contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. In 1984, the EPA classified it as a superfund site.

Grupo Mexico, one of the largest mining companies in the world, bought ASARCO in 1999. Two years later they’d suspend operations at the site and would never reopen.

The closing of the East Helena ASARCO site created ripples that are still being felt today.

Tom Tenneson

Tenneson still remembers when he received his letter that said the site was closing.

“It was a tough day… I need a second. It was an emotional day you know,” Tenneson told MTN. “We had always heard these rumors, they’re going to shut this plant down someday. In 2001 I got a call to come to the manager's office and he handed me a letter that said they’re going to shut this plant down in 30 days and it was a shock, a real shock.”

On August 14, 2009, the stacks at the site came down, signaling a final end to the smelter operations.

WATCH: 2009 footage of ASARCO stacks demolition

ASARCO stacks fall

Remediation work continues to this day.

The East Helena community is still full of stories about ASARCO, which is why the smeltermen hope you join them this July, 13 for their picnic.

Stories are best shared and not forgotten.

Those with questions about the Smeltermans Picnic should reach out to Jim Adolph by emailing