World's Tallest Smokestack Comes Tumbling Down
For 58 years, the Omaha-Grant Smelter in Globeville was a familiar landmark to all Denver. When the 350 foot tall brick chimney was built in 1892, it was the tallest in the world. For perspective, 350 feet is about 35 stories, so in a world 40 years away from skyscrapers, the smelter stack, visible for miles, was an awe-inspiring sight. For a visceral sense of how high 350 feet actually is, here's a base jump from that height:
The actual smelter building was torn down in 1903, but the stack at the corner of 41st Street and Brighton Boulevard stood abandoned for another 47 years. Naturally, this imposing tower presented a challenge to many young daredevils over the decades, and two of those stories were recorded for the Rocky Mountain News in 1994 by Frances Melrose, who was a regular researcher in the Western History Department for many years.
In 1928, Fred K. Floyd and Ernest Field made the ascent, using a ladder to get to a door about 25 feet up the side of the structure. Once in that door, they found climbing rungs embedded inside the stack. Not apparent from the exterior, there is a jog in the interior channel of the stack, so the climbers were in the dark for most of the 35 story climb.
Fred says: "What was it like on top? It was a grand view of smog-free Denver and the beautiful mountains to the West. The chimney's bore, 30 feet in diameter, was awesome. The outer dimension of the octagonal shape was 40 feet across and covered with heavy cast iron weatherplates, overlapping to form an outward sloping ring 5 feet wide."
In May, 1931, Joseph E. Horvat, of Arvada, and four other boys between 18 and 22 years old climbed to the top of the stack on a Sunday, and a crowd of people coming home from church saw them and called the police. After a couple of hours, they came down, and they said the scariest part of the whole experience was the reprimands they got for risking their lives.
A "smelter" is a furnace used for purifying gold and silver ore, and the Omaha-Grant Smelter was a major destination for busy mines all over the state of Colorado. The size of the chimney determines the capacity and efficiency of the process, and smelter chimneys are frequently the tallest structures all over the world. Today, the tallest chimney in the world is part of a power station in Kazakstan, and stands at 1,377 feet. The photo above is of one of the forges inside of the Grant-Omaha plant.
The Grant-Omaha stack, with 12 foot thick walls, was said to contain enough bricks to build 600 six-room bungalows. When the stack was completed in 1892, a dance was held on a platform built at the top.
"Barney Currigan, the man whose engineering skill and drive resulted in the building of the great stack, never got to see the finished product. He became ill a short time after work began on it, and died." Frances Melrose.
The Grant-Omaha stack had become a safety concern, because cracks were developing that would have cost a fortune to repair, and over objections of preservationists, it was demolished on February 25, 1950. The 5:30 p.m. event drew the biggest crowd of spectators in Denver history, estimated at 250,000 people, and many people recorded the event with photographs. The animation above includes photographs from two different photographers were able to capture multiple images within a couple of seconds, a high-tech feat in those days.
As an example of the utility of our research databases here at the Denver Public Library, in searching for photographs, I also found a great deal of other information using the General Index, which is part of our online database. The "General Index" is a unique collection of catalog cards compiled for decades by volunteers that provides access to articles and photographs in all kinds of Colorado newspapers and magazines. There is no other such index of these materials, and for decades it has been a gold mine for researchers. Now, it has graduated to the digital age, and can be searched online by keyword.
The card below is one of the some 1.3 million cards in the index, and gives references to the Mining Industry and Tradesman Magazine, and the DPL Lookout.
Search our database for "Omaha-Grant Smelter" to see all of our pictures of this long-gone Denver landmark.
My father, Kenneth Tomlinson, and two of his friends, Robert Wagner and Robert Lloyd climbed the smokestack, I believe in 1939. I'm not sure whether the article I have is from the Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News. Unfortunately there is no date on the newspaper article.
Thanks for your addition to the history, Kelly - I couldn't find any reference to the climb you mention - someone could probably find the article if they sit down and scour the microfilm for 1939. Thanks!
You're welcome Randel. I meant to type Howard Wagner, not Robert. Howard died in a rock climbing accident in 1940. One of the stories I remember my father telling me.
I do have a tif image of the article. If you would like, I could email it to you.
Thanks, Kelly, that would be great if you could send the image of the article. It would make it easier to find.
My Grandfather was there and filmed the the first demolition attempt February 1950. You can see the Denver Coliseum going up in the background.
Hi Chris - Wow - we'd love to see FILM of it - can you put it on youtube?
I was there on 40th Avenue with my dad watching the smokestack come crashing down ! That was a rush !
Thanks for commenting, Ron. What a memory!
Thank you for this excellent journalism
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