Utah History to Go
The Salt Lake Valley Smelter War
Change and Creativity
Struggle for Statehood
Struggle for Statehood Chronology
In 1895 Utahns Wondered When Statehood Would Come
A State is Born
Party Politics and Utah Statehood
The Constitutional Convention is Called
Constitution Was Framed in City and County Building
African American Community and Politics, 1890-1910
The Broad Ax and the Plain Dealer Kept Utah's African Americans Informed
Clarence E. Allen Was Utah's First Congressman
How Utah Lost One of Its U.S. Senate Seats in 1899
Salt Lake Native Was Interred in the Kremlin Wall
The Shooting of Arthur Brown, Ex-Senator From Utah
Convict Labor Helped to Build Utah's Road
Strawberry Valley, 1st Federal Reclamation Project
Women's Suffrage in Utah
Woman Suffrage Dominated Politics in Utah
Kanab Residents Chose Women to Run Their Town, 1912
Ruth May Fox, Forgotten Suffragist
Soren Hanson's "House That Eggs Built"
Utah Arts Council
Utah State Historical Society
The Beginning of Public Support For Libraries
The Pasta King of the Mountain West
Celebrating the New Year in Salt Lake's Chinatown
Electrifying Utah-Engineer Lucien L. Nunn
A Brewer-Sportsman's Prairie Style Home in Ogden
Saltair Village Was a Unique Place to Live
Boxing Fans Take the Plunge at Saltair
Castilla Hot Springs Attracted Many Visitors
Minstrel Shows
Utah State Capitol
Utah in the Spanish American War
Captain Richard W. Young and Spanish-American War
A Soldier's Life at Fort Douglas in the Early 1900's
Methodist Women Missionaries Worked Hard in Utah
Flour Mills
Guano Sifters on Gunnison Island
The Lehi Beet Sugar Factory
The Salt Industry Was One of the First Enterprises
From Free Salt to a Major Industry
Hospitals and Health Crazes in the Late 1800's
The Myths and Legends of Butch Cassidy
Butch Cassidy
Would the New State of Utah Go Metric?
A Look at Working Women in the Early 20th Century
Jobs in 1900
Explosion of Pleasant Valley Coal Company
The Lucin Cutoff
Southern Utah's First High School
Life Was Precarious in Turn-of-the-Century Utah
Salt Lake City Had Its Typhoid Mary
Vaccinations in Wasatch County
Promoting Physical Fitness
Woman's Home Association Tried to Help the "Fallen"
Juvenile Delinquency Posed Problems For Utahns
Traveling Gypsies Brought an Exotic Lifestyle to Utah
The First Large Factory in Utah
The Rise and Fall of Ogden's Packing Industry
Newsboys Claimed Their Street Corners in Downtown
The Bamberger Electric Railway
The First Cars in Two Small Towns
A Bicyclist Challenges the Great Salt Lake Desert
Daredevils of the Sky-Early Aeronauts in Utah
Ogden Defeats Salt Lake City in a War of the Wheels
Utah's Immigrants at the Turn of the Century
Boys' Potato Growing Clubs
Joe Hill and the I.W.W.
Socialist Women and Joe Hill
A Bit of Polynesia Remains
Justice Zane and Antipolygamy
The Salt Lake Valley Smelter War

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, April 1995

Americans tend to believe that pollution is a relatively recent phenomenon and that concern about the problem only began to surface in the 1960s. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, farmers in the Salt Lake Valley united to fight against industrial pollution. Although they won the short-term battle, the larger war to save their agricultural way of life was doomed by the forces of population growth and urban expansion.

The counties along the Wasatch Front have long boasted Utah's strongest and most diverse economies. Agriculture had been their mainstay in the territorial period, and these same areas became the industrial and population centers of Utah as well. Wasatch Front farmers proved highly adaptive. Realizing the potential of improved transportation and market access, they diversified, growing sugar beets, truck vegetables, and grains and adding orchards and dairy cattle to their operations. An early example of their adaptation to industry was the beet sugar business; farmers began to feed their cattle on beet pulp left over from the sugar extraction process.

Utah's industrial development began to pose dangers for agriculture, though. In 1901 a mysterious illness affecting cattle in Layton was diagnosed as lead poisoning. It seems that the boxcars that hauled the beet pulp to feed these cattle had earlier carried ores containing a dangerous lead content to local smelters.


Highland Boy exterior, 1904



Highland Boy Smelter consolidated on May 14, 1909

The smelting and refining business boomed in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1890s and early 1900s, processing ores from the nearby mines. The first copper reduction smelter, the Highland Boy, was built in Murray in 1899. More smelters followed at Midvale, Bingham Junction, and elsewhere. Most Utahns welcomed the smelting industry; it provided hundreds of jobs and contributed to the strength and diversity of the new state's economy.

Salt Lake Valley farmers, however, soon regarded the smelting industry as a menace. In the summer of 1903 strong winds and rain spread "smelter smut" across the valley, blighting crops wherever the smoke touched ground. The problem was sulfur dioxide fumes in the smoke; when the fumes mixed with water, they created deadly sulfuric acid. The farmers demanded an investigation, and authorities turned to Professor John A. Widtsoe at the Utah State Agricultural College in Logan.

Widtsoe's stated his findings carefully: He expressed concern that farmers were blaming all of their problems on airborne pollutants, while other factors contributed to the crop failures. He had determined, however, that the sulfur dioxide problem was real, particularly in areas that received direct smoke contact. The farmers demanded a complete and immediate stop to the pollution; when smelting company officials asked for time to study and mitigate the problem, arbitration efforts broke down. The farmers took their grievances to federal court.

A number of cases were filed, but the one with the greatest impact was James Godfrey et al. v. American Smelting and Refining Company et al. Taking a leaf from labor organizers, the farmers had united behind this case involving 419 farmers and five different smelters. Federal Judge John A. Marshall ruled for the farmers, granting an injunction requiring that the smelters process ore with no more than 10 percent sulfur content. Smelters failing or refusing to meet that standard would be permanently enjoined from operation. All but one company chose to close or move their operations. American Smelting and Refining paid the farmers $60,000 compensation to allow its continued operation.

While farmers celebrated their victory, others in the community were incensed. The smelting business had provided many jobs, and now many Salt Lake Valley residents were unemployed. In the ensuing decades farmers would realize that they were losing ground in the long run. Utah's rapidly growing population filled the Wasatch Front communities and turned farmland into housing developments. Simultaneously, a variety of industries moved into former farm areas as well.

Sources: Leonard J. Arrington and Thomas G. Alexander, A Dependent Commonwealth: Utah's Economy from Statehood to the Great Depression, edited and with an introduction by Dean L. May (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974); John E. Lamborn and Charles S. Peterson, "The Substance of the Land: Agriculture vs. Industry in the Smelter Cases of 1904 and 1906," Utah Historical Quarterly 53 (Fall 1985): 308-25.


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