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St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company in Collinsville

March 16, 2020

Last modified: May 12, 2020

The St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company based in Collinsville, Illinois, was a zinc and lead smelting company that operated from 1904 until 1934 when the location closed after a walkout and prolonged strike. While in operation, employees made innovations in the lead works industry but had a tenuous economic and environmental relationship with the community. After the closure of the works, the land was developed into a city park and several neighborhoods. However, the former lead works land has repeatedly tested at elevated levels of lead contamination and was the site of an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup in 2005.

In 1865, Dr. Octavious Lumaghi and his family founded a coal mining company in Collinsville.1 In 1876, the Lumaghi Coal and Mining Company expanded operations through the establishment of a zinc works in their mining district.2 The zinc company changed hands several times before November 1903, when the land was purchased by several Collinsville residents who wanted to develop Collinsville’s metalworking industry further. In 1904, the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company, a subsidiary of the National Lead Company, began operating.3

Zinc and lead smelting both used specialized massive heating and cooling equipment so the conversion from processing zinc to heating and purifying ore to make lead was fairly simple. An abundance of lead-ore mining facilities in Missouri eventually encouraged a complete shift from zinc production to lead. In addition to land and equipment purchased from the Lumaghi Company for the plant, additional acreage was purchased from the American Brewing Company, but none of the brewery’s existing infrastructure was used by the smelting works, which necessitated new, specialized construction.4

After opening in 1904, the plant only ran for a couple of months before closing for additional construction, which took three years to complete. When the plant reopened in 1907, it hired more than 200 employees. The works continued to operate with an average of 225 employees until World War I, which doubled its workforce to as many as 425 employees during the factory’s peak.5

The creation of the smelting works dramatically reshaped the surrounding land, creating a pond to cool blast furnaces by damming a nearby stream and developing more than forty buildings on the plant site, two of which were racially segregated bunk house dormitories for single-employees and a hotel near the plant’s entrance gates for new hires.6 Outside of the plant, the company created more than forty single-family residences for employees with families and developed a series of Bungalow-style houses for executives who could afford more expensive homes.

Less than a decade after the 1907 reopening of the plant, a series of lawsuits against the company were filed, mainly from farmers seeking damages for ruined crops as a result of lead pollution from the smelting works, most of which were dismissed.7 The numerous lawsuits led to the creation in 1916 of a special investigative committee, consisting of three chemists, to study claims of contamination by the smelting works.8 The committee, hired by the Smelting works, took soil and air samples in areas of claimants’ lawsuits. This took a year to complete and involved the construction of a “glass house” over specific types of crops and pumping the “mixture of gas which prevails at certain points” to gauge its effect on a variety of crops.”9 Additionally, to mitigate the damage the company built new smokestacks three times, each taller than the last.  The high smokestacks were designed to decrease lead pollution in the immediate vicinity, culminating in the creation of a 30-foot wide, 376-foot high smokestack, which cost the company approximately thirty thousand dollars to build in 1917.10

The Collinsville location was also a site of innovation in the lead industry, such as the creation of the “bag house,” designed by plant manager W.E. Newnam.11 The bag house contained a series of 30-foot bags designed to collect excess precious metals before pumping the rest out of the smokestack, a technology that saved the company money and reduced the amount of metals pumped into the air. With the use of the bag house, the Collinsville site was able to recover one to two ounces of silver per ton.12 Because of the extraction of additional metals, the lead produced was “unusually pure” and favorable for the creation of “white lead.”13 Newman also invented a mechanical “rabbler” or “rabbling machine,” which was a mechanized device that agitated heated ore in open hearths, the method is known as the “St. Louis Hearth.”14 The use of the mechanical “St. Louis hearth” dramatically altered the hearth workflow and lead industry, a job which previously required dozens of workers now only required two per mechanical hearth.15 Both new technologies were incorporated by smelting works throughout the world and reduced the number of hearths and workers necessary at the Collinsville location and allowed for significant downsizing from 24 to just 16 mechanical hearths after 1915, and a substantially lighter workforce of one hundred employees by the 1930s.16

Over the life of the smelting works, employees repeatedly went on strike over pay and safer working conditions, once in 1905 and again in 1917.17 Due to continually low employee morale and poor working conditions in 1914, a new plant manager, W.E. Newman, was hired. Newman ran the plant until its closure in 1937. However, despite the development of the new mechanical hearth system or “St. Louis hearth” developed by Newman, which decreased the workload and increased safety, striking continued throughout the life of the plant.18

In conjunction with massive coal mining strikes in the area, the St. Louis Smelting Works employees walked out on August 4, 1917 and remained off the job into November, a move supported by the Collinsville and Maryville City Councils as well as the Lumaghi miners association.19 Ultimately, 12 strikers and the local sheriff, who had arrested African-American strikebreakers, were arrested and found in contempt of court for impeding wartime production after the Wilson administration pushed through a court injunction ending the strike, citing the need for workers during a time of war. Employees were expected to offer dedicated support towards a “war for democracy.”20

Strikes occurred again in 1934 over low wages. By this time, several local mines were exhausted and the costs to import coal and ore substantially increased; as a result, St. Louis Smelting Works decided to close the plant. By 1937, the site was entirely abandoned.21 The St. Louis-based company relocated their machinery to another National Lead Company plant outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1937, and the smokestack was later sold as scrap for $150 and dismantled.22

After the plant closed, much of the land was used by the city of Collinsville as a dump until 1946, when ownership of the land passed to Collinsville resident Charles Miller.23 Miller donated several acres to the city of Collinsville to be turned into a community park and encouraged the development of other parts of the land for single-family residential homes. Miller additionally planted thousands of trees to beautify the city and this burgeoning neighborhood. By 1959, only two buildings out of the original forty workhouses were still standing: the “bath house,” which had been converted into a residence and the “bag house,” which was later dismantled.24

Soil tests conducted in 1986, 1991, and 2002 revealed elevated levels of lead. As a result, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Department of Public Health initiated screenings of lead levels in residents’ blood to determine the extent of lead absorption. All residents tested within acceptable levels. When the Illinois EPA conducted additional soil samplings in 2002, they found chunks of lead slag in Pine Lake, two surrounding ponds, as well as in areas surrounding the pond along Pine Lake Drive, Raintree trail, Lemontree Trail, Banyan Tree Road, and Pinehurst Court. As a result, a cleanup in several targeted areas of the site began in 2005 on 150 acres containing 273 homes. The Illinois EPA conducted testing at each residence and removed and replaced the topsoil at homes that tested positive for elevated levels of toxicity.25

For more, see this Oral History

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Kathy Weiser, “Collinsville, Illinois – Coal Mines and Catsup,” (Accessed 8-26-2019).
2. W. T. Norton, ed., Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois, and Its People, 1812 to 1912(Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912), 495.
3. Madison County Courthouse Recorder of Deeds Office, Edwardsville Illinois, Book 293, 517-518.
4. “Work is Moving with Much Vigor: Zinc Smelter Being Put in Shape for Work,” Collinsville Herald, July 19, 1907.
5. “Big Smokestack is Sold as Junk,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer.
6. “The old ‘lead works’ is chapter from city history few remember” Collinsville Herald, Aug 14, 1979; Karl L. Monroe, “The city’s metal smelting business,” Collinsville Herald, June 18, 1987.
7. Examples of court cases filed against the St. Louis Smelting Works and the response by the lead works company to push for dismissal can be found at: “Motion to Quash Charge of Nuisance was Filed,” Edwardsville Intelligencer, Oct 10, 1916; “Circuit Court Cases: Dismissed” The Daily Journal, Flat River, Missouri, Thursday, December 10, 1936; and “Circuit Court Cases: Dismissed” The Daily Journal, Flat River, Missouri, Thursday, Nov 12, 1936.
8. “Make Careful Test,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Aug 12, 1916; “Testing Gas Fumes,” Edwardsville Intelligencer, July 15, 1916/.
9. “Make Careful Test,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Aug 12, 1916.
10. “Big Smokestack is Sold as Junk,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Mar 22, 1937.
11. Note on spelling: Newnam is the most frequent variation in spelling, however Neuman and Newman were also common variations throughout the literature on the smelting works and Mr. Newman’s contributions to metallurgy.
12. Herman Garlichs, “The Metallurgy of Lead Ores in the Lower Mississippi Valley,” Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering 17, no. 3 (August 1, 1917): 112-14.
13. Herman Garlichs, “The Metallurgy of Lead Ores in the Lower Mississippi Valley,” Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering 17, no. 3 (August 1, 1917): 112-14; “white lead” is a poisonous powdery substance used as a pigment.
14. Herman Garlichs, “The Metallurgy of Lead Ores in the Lower Mississippi Valley,” Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering 18, no. 3 (August 1, 1917): 112-14. Vol XVII no. 3 114
15. Heinrich Oscar Hoffman, Metallurgy of Lead (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1918) 104-110.
16. Heinrich Oscar Hoffman, Metallurgy of Lead (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1918) 104-110; “The old ‘lead works’ is chapter from city history few remember,” Collinsville Herald, Aug 14, 1979.
17. “Picketing is Held Illegal,” The Joliet Evening Herald-News, Mar 6, 1905.
18. H.O. Hoffman refers to this method as the “Newnam Mechanical Ore-Hearth Method” and claimed it generated a greater yield “than the hand hearth, the work is easier and less unwholesome, and the cost a great deal less.” see, Heinrich Oscar Hoffman, Metallurgy of Lead (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1918) 109; For information on striking see, Weinberg, Carl R., Labor, Loyalty, Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, Illinois, 2005), 81.
19. Minutes from the UMWA Local 826, November 13 and August 24, 1917 as cited from, Weinberg, Carl R., Labor, Loyalty, Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, Illinois, 2005) 81-82.
20. Weinberg, 80-81.
21. “Madison County Looses an Industry,” Alton Evening Telegraph, Oct 21, 1935.
22. “Big Smokestack is Sold as Junk,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Mar 22, 1937.
23. “The old ‘lead works’ is chapter from city history few remember” Collinsville herald, Aug 14 1979; “Courts: Real Estate Transfers,” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Nov 13, 1946.
24. George Pring, “Lead Company Shell Stands at Collinsville,” The Collinsville Herald, Feb 18, 1959 Vol. 80 – No. 7.
25. “St. Louis Smelting and Refining: Collinsville, Illinois,” Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Accessed 9-1-2019).
Cite this article: Shannan Mason, "St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company in Collinsville," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified May 12, 2020, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/st-louis-smelting-and-refining-company/.
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