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Ruston's Early History

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

The following is the first of several articles about the town of Ruston, Washington. To learn more, follow the link at the bottom of this page, or go to the Ruston, WA. page on this site.

Asarco-Ruston, WA: Asarco smelter early 20th century

The one square-mile town of Ruston, is enclosed on three sides by the city of Tacoma. Located on the edge of Commencement Bay, it was originally accessible only by boat. In 1888 Denis Ryan constructed a smelter on the tide flats; in 1890 the smelter was acquired by William Rust. Rust founded Ruston as a company town for his employees; it was incorporated in 1906.

Although pressures have been exerted since its inception to incorporate Ruston into the larger city of Tacoma, the community has remained independent. Ruston’s identity, culture, and economy were always bound to the smelter. From the early days of strikes and employee-company conflicts, to the public health challenges of the 1970’s and 1980’s, to the current dilemmas and debates about its future development, virtually all the challenges Ruston has faced have been linked to its industrial history.

Ruston, WA. Mid-20th Century.

The plant was unionized in 1914 by Western Federation of Miners. In 1916 the WFM local became Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers, Local 25. In 1967 Mine-Mill merged with the United Steelworkers which, today, is the main union involved with smelting operations nationally.

For the first five years of operation, the smelter processed lead. In 1903 it expanded to include copper smelting. In 1905 Rust sold the plant to the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), a consortium of mines and smelters led by the Guggenheim family of New York. Located on the tide flats adjacent to Commencement Bay, the smelter received ores from Montana, Idaho, Alaska and the Philippines. By 1912 lead production had ended; the company converted the plant to a specialized “custom” copper smelter with a focus on inexpensive low-grade copper ores contaminated with arsenic.

From its earliest days the smelter’s emissions created controversy. Residents of nearby Tacoma complained about damage to gardens and livestock from sulfur dioxide. Newspaper reports from the period reveal ongoing concerns about odors emanating from the smelter as well as breathing problems when sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions were particularly high.  Starting in the 1920’s an ASARCO employee was designated to respond to complaints about property damage and arrange reimbursement for damaged lawns, shrubs, cars, laundry, or injured livestock or pets (Sullivan 2008). By 1909, techniques existed to capture the SO2 gases produced during smelting operations and convert them into sulfuric acid; ASARCO’s strategy, however, was to build high smokestacks to disperse the contaminants more widely. Built in 1917 the Ruston stack stood 571 feet tall, making it the largest industrial structure on the west coast.

Sulfur dioxide is known to cause, or accentuate, asthma, emphysema, breathing difficulties and throat and lung irritations. Over the years, and through many ensuing controversies, ASARCO would continue to insist that high stacks were the only feasible strategy for dealing with SO2 emissions; they would also assert, well into the 1970’s, that SO2 created only minor damage to plants and crops, and only minimal, temporary discomfort to humans.


Morgan Murray. Puget’s Sound: A Narrative History of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981

Sullivan, Marianne. “Game Without End: politics, pollution, public health and the Tacoma Smelter.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2008.

ASARCO photograph used by permission of Tacoma Public Library

Ruston photograph used by permission of Mike and Tiffany Tallman


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