ANACONDA — The only sound on the breezeless, blue-sky morning was the rhythmic crunch of Lilian Chan’s hiking boots on gravel as he walked down Stumptown Road just west of here, the sun at his back. 

Chan, a native of Hong Kong, was hiking the Continental Divide Trail, which passes through Anaconda on its path from the Canadian border to New Mexico, and had stayed the night at a shelter in a city park established specifically for CDT hikers. 

“It’s great,” Chan said, his eyes following a butterfly fluttering into an aspen stand. “It has a beautiful, classic style. It reminds me of the 1970s and 1980s.”

While Chen was just passing through, other people are staying. Telltale signs of the town’s discovery — increased traffic, new home construction and trendy businesses — have become noticeable. 

“Anaconda is the last best place of the last best places,” said Vanessa Romero, 39, who moved to Anaconda in 2017 from Boise, Idaho, and is opening a wine shop downtown.

This isn’t the typical Montana discovery tale. Movie stars aren’t buying sprawling ranches here. Tourists aren’t pouring into town, though they are coming at a steady trickle. The rich and famous aren’t flocking to the local ski area. Rather, Anaconda’s newcomers are often young couples and extended families who want a low-pressure lifestyle in a Montana community but have been priced out of other areas. The town is an example of a historically industrial community that is adapting to a recreation economy. 

Its proximity to recreation, relatively affordable real estate and untapped retail markets are creating opportunities out of reach in more populated areas. 

“We’re seeing the refugees of Missoula and Bozeman” and other rapidly growing towns in the West, said Adam Vauthier, executive director of Discover Anaconda, an economic development organization. “The other recreation towns in the vicinity just got so big.”

Vanessa Romero poses with her dad, Steve Hill, in the Pintler Hostel in Anaconda. Credit: Erin Everett / MTFP

Anaconda was a copper-smelting boomtown in the early 1900s as copper-ore mined in nearby Butte was processed here. The remnants of those operations — a towering 585-foot brick smokestack and a mountain of black slag — still stand as hallmarks of history and one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. 

Contamination has been a development roadblock for decades, but time and cleanups have healed the land surrounding the town to a state of scenic beauty. The northeast edge of town is home to the Old Works Golf Course, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus and draws golfers from around the world. Hillsides that were once brown from heavy metals expelled by the smelter on the southern side of town are now partly blanketed in the green foliage of trees that have enjoyed clean air for the last 40 years. 

“We are seeing a lot of growth, development and redevelopment,” said Carl Hamming, Anaconda-Deer Lodge county planner. “We have an extremely conducive business environment at this time.”

Lately, Anaconda hasn’t been a tough sell for new residents and businesses as Montana’s open spaces, relaxed lifestyle and recreation access are in high demand.

“We were a desperate community,” Anaconda-Deer Lodge County CEO Bill Everett said. “This is the first [statewide] economic activity we’ve had in 45 years that Anaconda’s been a part of.”

Anaconda is on Montana Highway 1, off of Interstate 90 halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Within 30 minutes or less of downtown, a recreationist can hunt in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest, fish the Big Hole River, swim in Georgetown Lake, ski at Discovery Ski Area, bag peaks in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness Area, and side-by-side in the Flint Creek Range. 

“There’s a lot of year-round interest in what the surrounding area offers,” Hamming said. “You don’t have to compete with the traffic that Bozeman is seeing at their trailheads.”

Development activity started about three years ago, said Vauthier with Discover Anaconda. 

“Anaconda is the last best place of the last best places.”

Vanessa Romero

“In mid-2018, any day of the week, there were 240 homes [available for sale] on MLS,” Vauthier said. “Today it’s 12. Five of them are million dollar homes at [Georgetown] Lake, and they’re pending. That’s the volume of change that happened overnight.” 

The Multiple Listing Service shows a median home price of $294,000 in Anaconda, up 36.7% over the same time in 2021. That’s 60% lower than the median home price in Bozeman and 50% lower than in Missoula. 

The U.S. census shows Anaconda’s 2020 population was 9,421 residents, up from 9,298 10 years prior. In 1980, before the smelter closed, the count was 12,518, and until 2020 it had sharply declined every decade since. During those years, Anaconda grew familiar with the issues that accompany a declining population: economic struggle, generational poverty and a high median age.

Anaconda now has its highest population since 1990, when the census counted 9,491 residents. 

“We haven’t seen a single population growth since the smelter closed” until now, Vauthier said, adding that census data also shows a declining median age. “Montana became the recreation hotspot during COVID because there was space, and people wanted to stay.”

The rest has been a chain reaction. With the housing inventory low, new demand has spurred development. 

Hamming said 69 residential lots in the urban area of Anaconda are being developed for single-family homes, 16 condominium units are planned at a long-mothballed apartment building near downtown, and 23 residential lots are ready for construction at Georgetown Lake.

Local officials agree that housing for families and workforce are the priority, and they are working to recruit new people who will help connect Anaconda’s past with its future. The town can learn from other Montana communities that lost touch with their character and culture in the name of growth, said Tia Fuller, also of Discover Anaconda.

“We want to get rid of the buffalo touchers,” she said, referring to visitors who get too close to bison in Yellowstone National Park. 

Rather, officials are aiming for a community of 10,000 to 20,000 people to include “respectful recreationists” who have stable jobs, support local businesses and are community-minded. 

With new residents, new businesses have come.

A shed builder, auto-body shop, several restaurants, a hotel, a zip line, brewery, yarn store, clothing boutique, and home goods store have all opened in Anaconda since 2018, with most of the activity in the past two years. 

Romero’s wine shop will be one of the next businesses to join the downtown roster.

“I selfishly wanted access to good wine because there wasn’t any here,” Romero said with a laugh while sitting in the basement of the hostel that her parents opened downtown last year. 

Romero moved to Anaconda with her husband, Joe, in 2017. He is a nurse anesthetist at Community Hospital of Anaconda. 

“Our goal was to raise our kids in a small mountain town,” she said.

Lilian Chan takes a break from hiking the Continental Divide Trail, which passes through Anaconda. Credit: Erin Everett / MTFP

Matt Johnson and Emily Adams, who recently moved to Anaconda from San Diego, had a similar goal. Both in their early 30s, Johnson and Adams moved to Anaconda in 2020 with dreams that are simple but no longer easy to achieve in San Diego. They wanted to buy a house in a safe neighborhood, open a business and live life outside.

“It’s been my summer destination since I got out of college,” said Johnson, who used to visit his uncle here. 

The couple opened Anaconda Bicycles, a sales and service shop, this spring in a brick storefront downtown. 

“We love this lifestyle, we love living here,” Adams said after finishing her shift as a dental assistant at a local clinic. “We don’t have a bunch of money. We are a hard-working pair. We don’t want to change this town.” 

Johnson, Adams and Romero all moved to Anaconda with extended family including parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. Romero’s parents, Steve and Marsha Hill, bought a horse property in Anaconda while visiting Vanessa. 

“As soon as we drove through the gate we said, “Yeah, we can do this,’” Steve Hill said. A year ago, he opened a hostel downtown after seeing a niche in the recreation industry. “We brainstormed and couldn’t come up with a single idea [for recreation] within 40 miles of town that we wanted to do and couldn’t.”

In particular, he had in mind Continental Divide Trail hikers like Chan. 

“Anaconda is a CDT gateway community,” he said. Hikers, as well as skiers, anglers, mountain bikers and others have kept the hostel’s 38 beds mostly full for the past year. 

Hill, a retired geologist, said the community’s spirit of resiliency and cooperation — characteristic of its industrial roots — makes living here rewarding. 

“Everyone is trying to build this community in one way or another,” he said.

Romero, a mom of three small children, serves on the board of a nonprofit trying to build a new recreation center. Johnson and Adams are doing their part by joining the Anaconda Trails Society, leading community rides and hikes, and trying to expand the network of local trails. 

“The pipe dream is to have a large network of trails in town,” Johnson said. 

Naturally, growth can bring discomfort. Public officials are trying to balance how to foster healthy expansion while also preserving culture, resources and history. 

“It isn’t only a gain,” Hamming said. Growth is “bringing changes, wanted or not, that are generally irreversible.”

Community conversations that have been dominated by poverty and economic loss will need to shift to topics related to growth, including transportation safety. 

“We may have to have a conversation about traffic lights,” Hill said with a laugh.

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Erin Everett

Erin Everett is a journalist and a middle school English language arts teacher in Anaconda. She has degrees in print journalism and education from the Montana university system and The Associated Press. She has been a teacher in Philipsburg and Anaconda, where she lives.