Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Smoke Stack

I grew up in a small suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, called Chalmette. One of the biggest companies in town was Kaiser Aluminum, which had a plant located next to the Mississippi River.

I recently came across an article about the history of the plant written in 2002. Apparently, due to an expiring 30-year contract for natural gas at extremely cheap prices --- natural gas prices were high in the early 1980s? --- the plant was closed and dismantled rather than renegotiation of the contract or upgrading to use coal. Because aluminum smelting plants cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build it certainly seems that it was short-sighted of Kaiser to close the plant.

Here's the article from when they actually tore down the plant:


This Kaiser Aluminum plant originally opened in 1951. My Great-Uncle KN, who was married to my grandmother's youngest sister, worked there but I don't know when he started. We didn't move there from New Orleans until 1967 and KN's family had lived there for years by then. It's entirely possible they relocated around the time the plant opened. Their neighborhood was right across the highway from the plant and I wonder if he walked to work.

In keeping with the times, the plant (legally) emitted fumes from the smelting process. The smokestack, all that remains of the plant today, was added in 1956 to clean the emissions so perhaps the fumes weren't as bad for our health as we thought!

We never gave the smokestack much thought but it served as a weather vane, indicating which way the wind blew. It was replaced in 1976 with a different method for cleaning emissions --- regulations had changed --- and the smokestack stopped smoking. So perhaps the fumes were as bad for our health as we thought? We move away from Chalmette in 1974 but visited the area afterwards and I definitely remember the non-smoking smokestack.

You can't see the smokestack itself but you can see the plume
look like it's coming out the top of our old house around 1967

Times got tough for aluminum smelters in the early 1980s for various reasons and Kaiser closed the Chalmette plant for good in 1983. My great-uncle had passed away by then.

Here is a picture of the plant in 1953, pre-smokestack:


That is the mighty Mississippi River on the left. St. Bernard Highway is the road on the right side. Our neighborhood is the empty field just above right center on the other side of the highway. Our house and much of that neighborhood was built in the early to mid-1960s. 

Between the Kaiser Aluminum plant below and the ship dock above (the two diagonal white lines next on the river's right side) you can just see the Chalmette Battlefield and monument --- it is basically a smaller version of the Washington Monument in D.C. --- just below the docks. This area is where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1815.

The smokestack itself still stands as it has apparently come in handy as a cell phone tower.

And oil refineries have always been a big local industry thanks to proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. If you look at Google Maps you can see all sorts of large oil refinery containers in the area, some of which leaked during Hurricane Katrina and caused extra difficulties. In August 1976 one of my cousins died in a Chalmette oil refinery explosion leaving a wife and 5-year-old daughter behind.

Just a random and obscure history lesson for you!

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