When the copper king, Marcus Daly, decided to build his town here at the dead end of Deer Lodge Valley almost a century ago, he did it the way he did everything else -- big.

Daly spent a half million dollars just buying politicians, trying to make Anaconda the state capital. When that failed he built a hotel with a dining room for 500 -- eating there alone until business picked up -- and constructed a cooper smelter with the largest smokestack in the world.

The stack, so tall and wide you could put the Washington Monument inside and have room to spare, still pierces the Big Sky of Montana.

But this week the shell-shocked people of Anaconda, a historic Western town of 10,000, are wondering if that stack won't become the biggest tombstone in the world.

On Monday the Atlantic Richfield Co., which bought out the old Anaconda Mining Co., three years ago, announced it is closing down the smelter, lock, stock and barrel. Most people here figure Arco is closing down the town, too.

"You can tell President Carter we've got a 20th century ghost town out here" said Jim Morley, who has worked in smelters for 11 years. "A whole town is dying, and we're crying out for help."

The closure abruptly eliminated 1,000 jobs in Anaconda, but the troubles ran even deeper. The town elders figure that 78 percent of the jobs here are tied to the smelter and half the town's businesses will go under within six months.

Anaconda's economy is so locked into the cooper smelter that it makes auto-dependent Detroit look diversified.

But Arco's decision rocked all of Montana, a state once owned by the mining company but lately torn assunder by a classic dispute involving the environment and jobs.

The state has one of the toughest clean air laws in the country. Arco says the Anaconda smelter couldn't comply with the new state law -- or even less stringent federal standards -- if the company spent $200 million.

But state officials say that excuse is a dodge because they offered Arco exemptions to the pollution standards and said they would throw in tax breaks -- the same kind of treatment mining companies always have had in Montana. And the Federal Environmental Protection Agency said this week it would have exempted Arco from its clean air standards until at least 1988.

"For almost 100 years they have been coming to the Montana delegation asking for help, and they rarely have been refused" said Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont), who represents Anaconda. "In this case they didn't even have the courtesy to come to us."

Williams criticized Arco's move as "corporate arrogance at its worst."

Arco, however, was holding fast by its decision. The president of its Anaconda Copper Co. subsidiary, James L. Marvin, said the "prospects appear to be very slim" that the smelter, and a smaller facility also closed in Great Falls ever would be reopened.

The closure left the company without any smelting facilities, and had Montanans wondering if the last of the company's big local operations, the historic copper mine in nearby Butte, would be the next to go.

Arco was giving mixed signals on that. Last spring the company said shipping, the relatively low-grade Butte ore to a competitor's smelter was unattractive. This week, however, Arco said it was negotiating with smelters throughout the world and had no intention of closing the mine.

Suspicious Montanans thought the company was giving too many signals -- on the one hand blaming federal and state environmental laws but also, when it became clear that variances to the clean air standards would have been granted, blaming smelter economics.

But in the dusty little town of Anaconda, where tumbleweeds were blowing down Main Street this week, the locals watched all the corporate and political battling with stunned skepticism.

"We're gonna be overlooked by the politicians and the corporations," said Jim Morley's twin brother, Jack. We're wrote off already, a whole community wrote off."

Gene Lutey, who heads the Chamber of Commerce and runs a furniture store, said, "We just figure Arco wanted a tax writeoff and they took one, to heck with us."

Down at the United Steel Workers hall, where picket signs were stacked up in the corners, the anger already was beginning to well up. The smelter workers had been out on strike for 90 days when the word came down that they were never going back to work.

Now the unionists were painting new signs: "We're People, Not Tax Write Offs," and "Arco's Theme Song -- Another One Bites the Dust."

"The trouble is that Arco is used to 100 percent oil profits, and they won't settle for 30 percent on a cooper smelter," Jack Morley said. "That company's taken hundreds of millions of dollars out of here, bought mines with it in Chile and now they're just saying to hell with us."

The Morley brothers figure Arco owes them better than that. Their great grandfather went down in old Marcus Daly's first mine in nearby Butte almost a century ago. Their grandfather died of silicosis of the lungs from copper mine dust. Their father died during a strike 20 years ago.

Despite a century of that kind of grief -- of violent labor disputes, mines that filled men's lungs with silicates and smelters that spewed arsenic and other pollutants onto the brown slopes surrounding Deer Lodge Valley -- almost no one in Anaconda thought clean air was a fair trade for this new kind of grief.

During the political battle over Montana's new clean air standards, Arco strongly contested efforts to place an economic value on the lives of Montanans who might be killed by pollution.

"Some of the people who will die from air pollution are unemployed and therefore have no economic value," the company said in an official statement that had environmentalists crowing over the almost classically dehumanizing corporate language.

But along Main Street in Anaconda this week workers were painting "Cleaning Air Won't Feed Our Kids" signs, and the attitudes of Anacondans who suddenly had no economic value were not much different from the company's.

At the Chamber of Commerce office, Lutey handed out fact sheets that brimmed with civic pride rather than concern over the town's huge smelter smokestack. The sheet proudly proclaimed that the stack carried 4.8 million cubic feet of gas a day, with an illustration showing the gas billowing darkly from the stack.

In the old days, Lutey said, the gases carried 8,000 pounds of pollutants a day, mostly air-formed sulphuric acid. Over recent years the pollutants have been cut to 400 pounds a day -- still not pristine, Lutey acknowledged, but good enough for his town.

Lutey pointed past the big stack toward the hills that catch most of the pollutants. "Sure, there are some people up on the slopes who have cancer and think they got it from the smelter," Lutey said. "Then his voice trailed off and he shrugged a shrug that said life is never going to be simple.