Skip to main content

Murray Journal

Two Murray farmers were among the first modern environmental activists

May 20, 2021 10:30AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray farmer John Evans, also a plaintiff in David McCleery’s case, threshes his alfalfa, with the Highland Boy Smelter in view. (Photo courtesy the Murray Museum)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

While environmental activists Al Gore and Greta Thunberg have widespread name recognition, two Murrayites whose impact on the environment not only reverberated in Murray but across the globe barely receives little mention—James Godfrey and David McCleery. Those Murray residents led a group of farmers who sued and won a lawsuit that held industry responsible for any toxic output. Their court cases are still cited today for their importance in environmental law.

At the beginning of the 20th century, large smelters dotted central Salt Lake County, but none more than Murray. City leaders had promised the smelters free land and water rights trying to attract their business. Indeed, they did come, for between 1870 to 1900, Murray was home up to nine smelters. 

American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) consolidated most of the mills to create a large stack on the corner of State Street and 5300 South. Highland Boy was opened by Consolidated Mining Company on 900 W. Bullion St. in Murray. The powerful Rockefeller family owned both.

Surrounding those smelters were the farms that had been settled during the pioneer era. Two farmers, David McCleery and James Godfrey were among the first settlers in Murray. McCleery, whose house still stands on the corner of 700 West and 5300 South, had a giant neighbor to the south—the Highland Boy Smelter. Godfrey, whose land stretched from the Murray Cemetery (which he contributed land to) westward toward State Street, noticed his alfalfa starting to fail the same time the new ASARCO smokestacks became operational. He and McCleery were suspicious that the culprit was in the fumes as the heavy smoke landed on their crops.

McCleery and Godfrey were both leaders in their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ congregations. Godfrey provided land for young women to have a day camp of their own and was a patriarch, a South Cottonwood Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stake leader. His active leadership in Murray included being a trustee in the Murray School District.

As the smelters rained down sulfuric acid, crops turned yellow, animals became sick, and the constant belching of the smelters gave Murray, Midvale and Sandy the nickname “smoke belt.” The smelters directly employed 10,000 people at their peak. After seeing striking workers force the powerful smelters for labor demands, McCleery organized over 700 farmers in Salt Lake County seeking damages to their crops.

McCleery’s case focused on the Highland Boy Smelter. The farmers brought in scientist and future church apostle John Widstoe to study the crops. Widstoe sampled and found that the smelter’s exhaust was indeed poisoning the neighboring farms. The judge ruled in favor of the farmers calling the smoke a nuisance, but that case failed to stop the smelter's emissions.

Godfrey organized 400 farmers with the intent of stopping the smoke. The case divided the communities into two groups: wealthy non-church smelter owners whose side was sympathized by the Salt Lake Tribune and the poor church-going farmers whose side was told by the Deseret News.

The smelter owners took great umbrage against Godfrey, criticizing him and fellow plaintiffs as “smoke farmers,” sowing lawsuits with the hope to reap in a large settlement. The Tribune ran a cartoon depicting Godfrey as “the fabled gent who killed the goose (labeled Smelter) that laid the golden eggs.”

Newspapers called the showdown the “Smelter War,” in which 1906, a federal appeals court judge issued an injunction halting all smelter operations. The judge required smelters that processing ores were to have no less than 10% sulfur emissions. The smelters appealed to the supreme court, but they let the ruling stand. 

Thousands of smelter workers were out of work as the smelters dealt with their loss. ASARCO built their tallest tower that, for decades, became Murray’s most famous landmark. Highland Boy closed their smelter and relocated to remote Tooele Valley, far away from any farms.

The animosity between the smelter workers and farmers eventually subsided; Murray’s days as an industrial magnate were fading. McCleery and Godfrey returned to their farms, and their roles in some of the first successful environmental lawsuits are footnotes in history.