In 1880, E. N. Ewing with financiers Kersey Coates, T. F. Oakes, and Colonel C. F. Morse & Associates constructed the smelter on a twenty-acre site in the newly plotted townsite later called Argentine. The buildings were a series of structures designed for their beauty but adopted to the business of separating marketable metals from ore and base bullion.
At one time, the smelter colony included more than one-half of the town’s total population of 6,000. Work never ceased; day and night were only known by the changing of the gangs of men. Ore was shipped by rail from Mexico and Canada, as well as from various parts of the United States, but ore from the mining districts of the Colorado Mountains provided the bulk of the Argentine import. At the smelter, the ore and base bullion were crushed, separated, and refined.
A year after its construction, August R. Meyer gained controlling interest of the smelter. Mr. Meyer was a pioneer in the development of the modern Kansas City, Missouri, park system. Meyer Boulevard and the Circle Fountain were named for him. Mr. Meyer’s former home at forty-fourth and Oak Street, designed in German manor house style by VanBrunt &Howe, is now occupied by the Kansas City Art Institute.
The people of Argentine even elected one of the smelter workers its mayor. He was Charles W. Green, who came to Argentine in 1898 from the mining camps in Colorado to be superintendent of the Argentine smelter. Mr. Green was elected to four separate terms as mayor of Argentine, served as councilman from the district immediately following its annexation, was elected the first finance commissioner of Kansas City, Kansas, and was then elected its mayor in 1913. Mr. Green’s career paralleled closely that of August Meyer, who also got his start in a Colorado smelter. Both men came to the Kansas City area about the same time. Although each rose to a position of outstanding leadership in public affairs, Green never achieved the financial status of his employer.
In its heyday of 1898, the Smelter boasted a total production of 7,889,029 ounces of silver valued at $4,970,088; 242,736 ounces of gold worth $5,017,360; and 39,947 tons of lead priced at $3,195,760, which was one-fifth of the nation’s total lead output. About 10,000,000 tons of blue vitriol and more than 200,000 pounds of zinc were also produced that same year. The smelter was shipping out about a ton of silver bricks or ingots and $20,000 in gold each day to places as far away as India and Japan.
In 1899, under Meyer’s leadership, the smelter company constructed the stack that became an Argentine landmark. It was the largest brick smokestack in the United States, its height being 187 and one-half feet, the base 26 feet square, and 15 feet across the top. It contained 700,000 bricks and cost $20,000 to build. The smokestack was located at Metropolitan Avenue and 21st Street.
Originally, another stack was situated on top of the hill to the south at 23rd and Lawrence. Brick passageways wound their way up the steep hillside and into the solid rock below the stack. A tunnel carried the flue under Metropolitan Avenue, Silver Avenue, and many of the homes and buildings in the valley. The entire system of tunnels was more than a mile long. The second stack was built to replace the older stack and its tunnels. Since the new stack was closer to the smelter, it did not require any tunnels. The new stack was used only for a short time with the closing of the Smelter in 1901 by the Guggenheims, a German metal tycoon family with whom Meyer had merged. Two factors that contributed to its closing were that it became cheaper to ship Mexican ore by water to the East than by rail to Argentine and that the Colorado ore was being refined in new smelters constructed nearer the ore mines in the mountains.
During its operation for two decades, it gained the distinction of being the greatest ore smelting and refining plant in the world. For more than a half-century, the stack was a prominent landmark in the Argentine district until it was razed in 1958 to make room for a $2,000,000 storm sewer improvement. In 1907, the land occupied by the Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company was purchased by Kansas City Structural Steel, where they operated for decades.
Companies smelted silver ore and fabricated steel products at the 22-acre Kansas City Structural Steel Site for more than a century. The activities contaminated soil with heavy metals, including lead. Site cleanup took place from 1990 to 1995. El Centro, a local nonprofit, acquired the site property in 1995 after signing an agreement with EPA to ensure long-term protectiveness of the remedy. El Centro worked with local government officials to pursue redevelopment of the site, and in 2014 ground was broken on La Plaza Argentine, a multi-tenant shopping center. On September 10, 2014, EPA Region 7 presented the Leading Environmentalism and Forwarding Sustainability (L.E.A.F.S.) award to Walmart and to the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association for creating the new Walmart Neighborhood Market retail store.
Information for this article came from the Kansas Room Special Collections, Heritage Collection presented by Simmons Funeral Home and the Environmental Protection Agency.