The Rise and Fall of Tormey, California
by Michael Tormey, May 7, 2006
(Note: Readers may find it helpful to first read the narrative, A History of Rodeo, California and the Role Patrick Tormey Played in its Early Development.)
Lost to the annals of history is the small town of Tormey that once existed in the upper northwest corner of Contra Costa County, California, near both San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait, barely two miles from the town of Rodeo and 28 miles from downtown San Francisco. While the name Tormey still appears on maps of the San Francisco Bay Area, today it is for the most part long abandoned, vacant land. It was at one time, however, a cozy company town that was home to hundreds of families over the course of nearly a century.
Map showing Tormey in relation to nearby communities.
In its earliest days, the site that ultimately became Tormey was originally prime ranch land, part of Patrick Tormey's vast Tormey Ranch. In about the year 1875 (the exact year is not known), in an era when railroad transportation was gaining a stronghold throughout the West, the San Pablo & Tulare Railroad Co. (*1) built a station on the line that ran through Patrick Tormey's ranch, and aptly named it Tormey Station. (The site was near the heart of Patrick Tormey's main ranching operations and not far from his personal home, a large mansion that once stood near Oleum.) In the years to come, it was around this Tormey Station that the town of Tormey ultimately emerged.
It is unclear whether Tormey Station was built at the urging of Patrick Tormey himself or whether the railroad initiated negotiations to buy and build on the property. In any case, it is clear that the interests of both parties were well served. From a business standpoint, surely the transportation and shipping needs of Tormey Ranch alone would have been enough to make Tormey Station a profitable stop for the railroad company. And no doubt, Patrick Tormey enjoyed the convenience. In any case, in the late 1800s, as railroads sought to aggressively expand their reach throughout the West, it was typical for railroad companies to build stations accessible to where wealthier individuals lived. (No doubt, politics played a role in this -- as the railroads hoped to obtain favor with those who were able support or stymie their growth plans).
A decade later, Tormey's growth from a single railroad station to a small town can be credited to the growth of big industry in the area and, in particular, metals refining (which was an increasingly important industry to the late nineteenth century American economy).
In 1884, under the direction of Prentiss Selby, the Selby Smelting and Refining Co. (often referred to as the Selby Smelting Works, or simply Selby Works) decided to move their huge refining operations from San Francisco to Contra Costa County. The Selby Works (the largest gold, silver and lead refining firm in the Western U.S.) had long been a cornerstone of San Francisco industry. Their growing success, however, also made them an increasingly bad neighbor in the city. (Operating around the clock, their many smoke stacks spewed out columns of dense, black smoke, creating a constant pall over San Francisco Bay.)
Seeking to move to a more rural area that provided both a buffer from the city and room for expansion, the firm purchased a large tract of land from Patrick Tormey, near the shore of the Carquinez Strait. The site was ideal for Selby, being more isolated than the firm's original downtown operation, with room to grow and being located near very deep waters that could accommodate ocean-going shipping vessels. Construction quickly began on large furnaces, industrial buildings and a deep-water docking facility through which the firm could receive large shipments of freshly mined ore from around the world to be refined. Not surprisingly, eager to support big business in their backyard, county officials were quick to designate the unincorporated area around the plant as "Selby", a name which still appears on some maps today.
In addition to the land that the Selby Works bought for their large industrial furnaces, Selby also purchased from Patrick Tormey a large tract of land adjacent to Tormey Station. Wanting to provide affordable housing for their workers (conveniently located to the Selby plant) and to lessen the burden of moving for those employees who accepted a transfer from Selby's soon-to-be-closed San Francisco operations, the company set out to build a small company town on the Tormey site. Under the direction of Selby engineers, streets were plowed, lots were cleared and graded, homes were erected (cozy California bungalow-style homes), and trees were planted. Even a small school building was constructed. Every comfort that could be wanted in a small town was provided, all at company expense and all owned outright by the firm. It was a convenient arrangement for employees, who were able to lease homes from the firm for a fraction of housing costs in nearby towns. Cheap rents came at the expense of ownership and control, however -- a fact that would prove disastrous for the town 87 years later.
While this researcher has not been able to find a record of exactly how many company-owned homes existed in Tormey, it is estimated that there were 45 to 50 such homes. In addition, at some point, as many as 14 privately-owned homes were built alongside the company-owned homes, as land came available. These privately-owned homes were, however, just as dependent on the firm as the company-owned homes were -- being that the Selby Works provided infrastructure (such as roads) and utilities (such as water and sewer), which were totally under company control.
As the years and decades went by, little changed in Tormey -- other than names, faces and even ownership of the Selby plant itself.
In 1905, the Selby Smelting and Refining Company was acquired by the larger American Smelting and Refining Company (more often known of as ASARCO). Of course, along with control of the Selby plant, ASARCO also gained control of the town of Tormey, which continued to serve as a company town where plant workers could live at bargain rent prices -- that is, until 1971, when life in Tormey took a drastic turn.
In the summer of 1970, ASARCO announced that the firm had decided to close the Selby plant. Economic factors were largely to blame, but tax disputes and increased public health and environmental concerns also played a role. In August, residents of Tormey were notified that their small, cozy town would be shut down along with the plant. Residents were informed that their leases would be terminated as of June 1, 1971. And private land owners were notified that utilities would no longer be provided from that date as well.
The news was, of course, a big blow to residents of Tormey, many whom had lived there for decades and had raised their children there. An even bigger blow came when they realized that ASARCO didn't intend to simply board up their homes. Rather, the firm planed to raze the entire town and remove any trace that it once existed. The official explanation for such drastic action was that the firm intended to prepare their land (both the plant site and the land on which the town stood) to be sold to prospective buyers seeking an industrial site. One must wonder, however, if there was some other unspoken motivation -- as no buyer has in the 35 years since made any use of the Tormey land. In hindsight, the firm might have been better off to keep the homesites intact and to offer them for sale to individual buyers. (Clearly, many residents would have preferred the option of being able to keep their homes, even at a higher expense than their previous bargain rents.) Some speculate, however, that ASARCO may have been aware of of an increased lead poisoning risk to the residents of Tormey and that they decided to quietly remove the health threat -- and any potential future liability problems -- by removing the town outright. In any case, whatever their true motivation may have been, company officials at ASARCO moved forward with their plans; and in the summer of 1971, the town of Tormey was completely razed, as was the Selby plant itself.
In some respects, the closing of the Selby plant and the loss of Tormey town stand as an erie reminder of the destruction wrecked on Patrick Tormey's Rodeo by the Earthquake of 1906. After the 1906 quake, the bricks from Patrick Tormey's felled stockyard plants were carted away and sold -- forever marking the end of an era and the end of Patrick Tormey's dreams. So, too, the closing of Selby Works and the razing of the town of Tormey marked the end of an era. All that exists today of the small town that was named after Patrick Tormey are the memories of those who once lived there and the few historical records that have been preserved over the years.
A typical quiet street in Tormey, as the town appeared in 1971, before
company-owned homes were razed in ASARCO's pull out from Selby.
Another view of Tormey, showing homes nestled between hills that
are common throughout the area. In the distance can be seen Selby's
landmark 610-foot chimney (once the tallest in the world), built in 1937.
As an addendum to this chapter on the history of Tormey, following is a 1971 newspaper article that visitors to this site will no doubt find of interest. It so perfectly describes the drama and heartache surrounding the closing of the Selby plant and the demise of Tormey. To do anything other than reprint the article in its entirety would not do justice to the emotional topic.
Coping: A Belated Christmas Story
by Tom Emch, San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1971
(Copyright © 1971, San Francisco Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.
Further reproduction is prohibited without permission from the publisher.)
When an industrial giant with assets of more than $824.5 million writes to one of its hourly workers whose assets are a wife, five children, some equity in a pickup and nine years of service to the company, it sometimes comes out like this:
"We sincerely regret that due to the closing of the Selby Plant, all company homes must be vacated before June 1, 1971.
"...this document is to be considered official written notice of termination of tenancy."
Moses Villalobos received this letter last August 3, along with forty-three other employees of American Smelting and Refining Company who live in company-owned housing at Tormey, California.
The letters were delivered in the sleepy, tree-shaded village about a week after the news broke like a death in the family:
"After 85 years of continuous operations, one of the country's oldest lead smelting and refining plants -- American Smelting and Refining Company's Selby Plant, 25 miles north-east of San Francisco -- will be permanently closed down..."
The announcement, distributed to Bay Area newspapers, added: "Every effort will be made by the Company to minimize the effect of the closing on the Selby employees."
Minimize the effect of closing? How?
Of some 340 Selby employees, nearly 260 would not be transferred; they would lose their jobs. About forty-four would be forced from their rented homes and have to find another place to live; another ten families who own their property and homes would be denied use of sewer lines on company property and would probably be forced to leave by Contra Costa County sanitation department requirements.
How do you minimize the effects of loss of income, loss of housing, when the paycheck stops right before Christmas and your home will be razed to the ground six months later?
This was the scene in Tormey last December; on B Street, where the eighty-year old houses have company numbers on them and look solidly alike.
Mrs. Villalobos lives at 260. Her children range in age from five to fifteen. It is painful for her to talk about the future: "We have to live from day to day, because we don't know when it will come, when he will be told he is through. My husband can't look for work until he is laid off; he can't quit because he'd lose his severance pay.
"We had to sell our car and put the money on the pickup so the finance company can't get it, and we don't know where we can move to. He doesn't have a job lined up. It's hard.
"Christmas?" she looks bewildered. "Presents for the children? Maybe a tree; I don't know."
The Torres family lives at 240 B Street. They don't know what they will do either. Across the street lives a woman whose husband has worked for ASARCO for thirty-seven years. "Please don't use my name," she pleads. "We're still hoping for a transfer."
She says bitterly: "They're not telling us anything. We brought up three daughters in this house; we remodeled it and put money into it, and now we'll have to leave. Our daughters are gone now. They all went to the little school at the end of the block -- Selby Grammar School -- and to high school in Crockett."
The Cordova family lives down the street in a pastel blue house that is well tended. The Malaneys live nearby and so do the Whites.
Jesse White may be one of the last residents of the company-owned houses in Tormey. It will be his job to close down the village, help demolish the homes and the smelter. After that? Well, he doesn't know.
Quentin Harris, a veteran crane operator at the Selby Plant, has made up his mind what to do. "I'll take my pension -- $130 a month. Maybe I'll go back home. Home? That's Russellville, Arkansas."
Harris has made it through rough times before and has no time for self-pity: "We'll make it all right."
Dudley Stillinger, who lives at the end of B Street, is lucky. A metallurgist with ASARCO for nineteen years, he will be transferred to the company's plant at El Paso, Texas: "Of course, we have to leave," he says, "it will be difficult getting settled again."
His wife, Susan, adds: "I don't think I really believed it until they boarded up the first house. It was depressing; everybody felt it."
She looks around her living room with its comfortable furnishings and the pictures of her children. "This has been a marvelous place. There's freedom here; it's a good place to bring up children. They can play safely, climb the hills. We'll miss it."
The Stillingers pay $37 a month rent to the company. The average rent paid by employees in company housing is $43. Similar housing in nearby Crockett or Rodeo would cost four times as much, if they could find it.
Dudley Stillinger knows where he'll be going, what he'll be doing for a living. Moses Villalobos and more than 250 hourly wage earners don't.
There has been a lead smelter on the Selby site since 1885 when California pioneer Thomas Selby (*3) "blew in" the first furnace. American Smelting and Refining Company purchased the smelter in 1905 and built the 610 foot high chimney in 1937, once the tallest in the world and a landmark on Carquinez Straits for more than thirty years.
In its lifetime, until July 1970, it is estimated that the Selby Plant has produced more than three million tons of refined lead, 40 million ounces of gold and more than a billion ounces of refined silver. It is the only important lead smelter in the United States located on tidewater, linked to the ore-producing countries of the world by shipping.
Six months ago there was little to indicate that the Selby Plant was in ill health financially. And when the announcement came that the plant would close, stockholders made inquiries, all of Contra Costa County wondered, and the employees to lose their jobs shouted: "Why?"
Here is the company's official statement: "For the past several years, the Selby smelter and refinery has been operating at or near the break-even point and at only fifty to sixty percent of capacity," according to Ralph L. Hennebach, ASARCO executive vice president. "In the past year, new cost burdens... make it impossible to operate the plant except at a loss. These burdens include increased state, county and local taxes, higher labor costs combined with decreased productivity, and an increase in ASARCO's tidelands lease with the State of California."
Outstanding among possible reasons for departure not mentioned by American Smelting and Refining Company are:
-- The $1 million tax suit against ASARCO won last year by Contra Costa County. The company contended it did not owe taxes on metals inventory stored in government bonded warehouses, and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. The State Court of Appeal found in favor of the county, and ASARCO now must pay. Says county auditor, H. Donald Funk: "I think this case must have a bearing on their decision to leave."
-- A State Department of Public Health report on the Selby Plant issued last May 1: "The company is a major lead processor and the files of the department's occupational health program show inability to eliminate lead poisoning in employees despite technical assistance from this department." Says Dr. Fred Ottoboni, chief of the Air Sanitation Unit: "The inhalation of lead dust has to be controlled at the source and I think they have had the techniques worked out. There have been some cases of illnesses, but there hasn't been a death from lead poisoning in California in years."
-- A State Department of Public Health report last June on the death of twelve valuable Appaloosa show horses in Benicia, Solano County, across the Carquinez Straits from the smelter. The interim report, since confirmed, names the Selby smelter as "probably responsible for the bulk of lead contamination" in the Benicia area. In addition, the report said, autopsies performed on the dead horses at UC Davis showed the horses died from what is known as "roaring disease," or lead poisoning. Pasture grasses in the Benicia area were found to contain 150 to 350 parts per million of lead.
The owner of the horses, B. George Wesner, has filed a $1.2 million suit for damages against American Smelting and Refining Company, Humble Oil and Refining Company, Winton, Jones Construction, Inc., six unnamed corporations and fifty John Does. Attorney for the plaintiff is Helen Culiner of Melvin Belli's law firm.
The dead horse phenomenon has plagued ASARCO for years. In 1916 there was a Selby Smelter Commission Report listing cases of horses suffering death by lead poisoning; the smelter was thought to be the cause of the death of some horses at Eliot Cove in 1953 and late last year the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the death of horses from lead poisoning near ASARCO's new smelter at Glover, Missouri.
Another possible, but unconfirmed, reason for ASARCO's departure is tightening regulations of the Bay Area Air Pollution Control District. A spokesman for the District says ASARCO's compliance record is good: "They've gotten two violation notices in the last six months. One was a chimney violation and one was a ground fire." But the District, in September, named ASARCO and three East Bay oil refineries as major air polluters.
The District spokesman said that on November 5, 1971 maximum emissions from a single point of sulfur dioxide would be cut in half, and that new lead emission standards of the State Air Resources Board require less than 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter averaged over a 30 day period.
At least one state official, who wishes to remain unnamed, insists that ASARCO could not comply with the new standards without a major overhaul of their smelter. Such an overhaul, of course, would be costly.
Meanwhile, when questioned last July on the reason the smelter is closing, Armand L. Labbe, Selby Plant manager said: "The decision was based strictly on the economic situation. It's a matter of dollars and cents." He told California Living later that specific reasons were the U.S. import duty of $15 per ton of lead contained in concentrates; the high cost of the Selby operation, and the efficiency of the modern ASARCO smelter and refinery at Glover, Missouri. The company also maintains smelters at El Paso, East Helena, Montana, and a refinery at Omaha. Foreign operations in which ASARCO has a controlling or a partial interest are located in Australia, Canada, Peru and Mexico.
Cheaper operating costs abroad. This is the real reason for the Selby shut-down, according to James Buck. He's president of Carquinez Local 51, United Steelworkers of America, the bargaining agent for all the Selby hourly-wage workers.
"You can't sell me on the high taxes story," says Buck. "San Francisco has higher taxes and industry is moving in. And it certainly isn't high wages. I'm a top journeyman and I get paid $3.77 an hour; laborers get $3.07.
"The 1968 strike? They saved money during the strike; they weren't hurt, but the workers were. I know people who haven't gotten over it yet." A nationwide strike shut the plant for nine months in '68-69.
Buck systematically rejects all the suspected reasons for the abandonment of the Selby smelter, including the $1 million tax suit and the tough air pollution control laws: "Foreign operations are just cheaper. If the ore comes from South America, it's cheaper to refine it in Peru," he insists.
Buck has worked for ASARCO for twenty years and says of his employer: "They're a hard-nosed outfit. I've had to negotiate with them."
Local 51, says Buck, will try to place unemployed smelter workers in other union jobs such as the ILWU and the Teamsters, "the ones with the hiring halls."
More than eighty workers had already been laid off when this was written. ASARCO's schedule called for more lay-offs in late December, some before Christmas, and closing of the plant by January 1. Demolition was to begin shortly after that, and the company houses in Tormey were to feel the blade of the bulldozer in June. Once cleared, the land would be ready for a new owner.
But messy problems remain. The little school in Tormey, on property given to the John Swett School District by ASARCO for as long as it is used for "educational purposes," is claimed by both ASARCO and the school district. It is now being used as an administration building and ASARCO wants the land back. The school district says they own it, and they have taken the matter to the county attorney.
Another messy problem is the ASARCO-maintained sewer system which serves the school building and 14 privately-owned homes across the highway (old U.S. 40). After June 1, ASARCO will refuse to operate the treatment plant, and the home owners face eviction by the Contra Costa County Department of Health.
"There are sewage disposal requirements that can't be ignored," says Ted Gerow, county environmental health officer. At a citizens' meeting in the school auditorium last December, Gerow told the home owners they had four choices:
"You can get an easement from the smelter and use the existing sewer system; you can form a sewer district, a taxing entity, and build your own treatment plant; you can annex to the nearest sewer district, the Crockett Valona; or you can abandon your property."
The forty people in the room look stunned. The silence is stony.
"Wait a minute now, " breaks in county supervisor Alfred M. Dias. "No one's going to have to abandon their home. Let's review all the alternatives. Let's set up a septic tank meeting, a meeting with the Crocket-Valona District." Dias has in mind a committee -- the politician's answer to all sticky problems.
A question from the audience is directed at Armand Labbe, Selby plant manager: "Is the smelter opposed to our using the existing facilities?"
Labbe says: "There is a possibility it could be used for a limited time. That's all I can say." Pressed for a yes or no answer, Labbe says helplessly, "I don't know."
Dias, the supervisor, hints at a law suit if the smelter doesn't cooperate on the sewer usage, and then pulls a rabbit out of the hat: "I don't want to get your hopes up. I didn't want to mention this, but there is a possibility of Federal funds. This is a disaster area just like a flood or a hurricane and... I don't know what a sewage treatment plant costs -- $500,000, I don't know -- but if it's declared a disaster area, the government will come up with a chunk of the money."
Nobody appears eager to chase this bright rainbow, but they do volunteer to serve on Dias' committee "to get something done."
The meeting breaks up. Outside the school house, vividly remembered by three generations of smelter workers' children, it is drizzling and gloomy. On B Street in Tormey there are no brightly lit Christmas trees in the windows. The company houses, those that are not already boarded up, are shut tightly against the light rain. One house has a forlorn-looking wreath tacked to the front door. There is no other evidence of the coming holiday season.
You take in the scene and hear the words of Jim Buck, the union leader: "We can't make any plans." And Mrs. Stillinger who said, "It's a good place to bring up children."
You think of Moses Villalobos with the five children, and of Ralph L. Hennebach, American Smelting and Refining Company's executive vice president, who said: "Every effort will be made to minimize the effect of the closing on Selby employees."
And the words ring in your ears all the way back to San Francisco: Every effort will be made... every effort... every.
Goals of Future Research
(Anyone with information that may help answer these questions or locate
missing data, documents, photos, etc., is kindly asked to please contact Michael Tormey.)
Obtain additional historical photographs that show how the town of Tormey appeared over the years, especially its early years. (I would also love to hear from former residents who might be willing to share their recollections of what it was like to live in or grow up in Tormey.)
Obtain historical photographs of Tormey Station. Also, obtain more detailed information on the station's original construction, as well as information on when and why it ceased operating.
Obtain historical photographs of the Selby Smelting & Refining Plant.
Obtain more detailed information on the history of the Selby Plant (its original construction at the Selby location, its purchase by ASARCO and its ultimate closing and dismantling).
(*1) Following a series of mergers into larger companies, the San Pablo & Tulare Railroad is today a part of the Union Pacific line.
(*2) Emch, Tom, A Belated Christmas Story (San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, 1971). Originally published on January 17, 1971, in the paper's California Living Magazine section. [Original clipping provided by Tormey genealogist and California Tormey descendent Edward N. Tormey.]
(*3) This was obviously an error in the reporter's research. Thomas Selby did indeed establish Selby Smelting and Lead Works in San Francisco, in 1856. Nonetheless, he passed away in 1875, nine years before his successor (and son?) Prentiss Selby engineered the firm's relocation from San Francisco to Contra Costa County.