ASARCO in El Paso: the Early History

Updated: Jan 30

El Paso del Norte commemorative marker

The following is the first of several articles about El Paso's long, complicated relationship with ASARCO. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the next article, or go to El Paso to see all the articles.

El Paso has a complex history. Originally it was part of Paso del Norte and belonged to Mexico. Ownership passed to the U.S. after the war of 1846-48 when Mexico lost almost half of its national territory. With the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848, the border was fixed at the Rio Grande River and El Paso became part of Texas and the United States, while its sister settlement on the south side of the river, remained with Mexico. The Mexican section of Paso del Norte eventually became Ciudad Juarez, a city separated from El Paso by a river and national border, yet linked by shared history, culture, and language.

The railroads directly contributed to ASARCO's growth by transforming mining in Mexico. Before 1880 copper was processed through a centuries-old, small-scale patio method for deriving precious metals from ore. Under Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, ASARCO's railway systems were permitted to penetrate deep into Mexico, a process that enabled large-scale exploitation of Mexico's mining resources. Small-scale mining operations transformed into huge labor and technology-intensive industries whose ownership was concentrated in U.S. corporate hands and whose profits flowed to the United States. By 1912 the value of mining operations in Mexico was estimated at $323,600,000. Mexicans owned approximately $15,000,000--less than 5% of this wealth, while U.S. companies, including ASARCO, held over 60%. In this way, ASARCO became one of the first transnational corporations, whose extraordinary growth depended on the relationships that bound Mexico to the United States.

In 1910 the El Paso lead smelter was expanded to process copper. The ores produced at ASARCO’s Mexican mines were transported to El Paso to be smelted. Mexican workers crossed the border to work at the smelter, swelling the population of the developing city. In 1890 the population of El Paso numbered approximately 10,000; by 1910 it was over 39,279. By 1925 its numbers had virtually doubled again, to 77,560. The majority of the population was, and continues to be, of Mexican origin..

The ASARCO smelter was central to El Paso’s economy. By 1927 The El Paso Herald reported that the smelter employed 800 workers and commanded a “million dollar payroll”. In 1929 the El Paso Evening Post described the smelter as “the largest and practically the only customs smelter of its type in the world.” During an average year,” the Post wrote, "the El Paso smelter…receives more than 310,000 tons of copper, 30,000 tons of lead, 61,000 ounces of gold and 5,000,000 ounces of silver.” The wealth produced from this vast quantity of metal was estimated at $22,000,000 for the preceding year. In 1948 the plant was again expanded to incorporate a zinc smelting facility.

Even as other businesses settled in El Paso, the smelter continued to dominate the city’s industrial landscape. In 1952 Ben Roberts, the smelter’s manager, addressing the Rotary Club at Hotel Paso del Norte, discussed the strategic importance of the railroads, claiming that 25% of industrial shipments arriving in El Paso were destined for ASARCO..

Useful sources:

  • Isaac Marcason, Metal Magic, Farrar, Straus, 1949

  • Gilbert González and Raúl Fernández, A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations and Migration, Routledge, 2003

Next: Controversy in El Paso

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