Getting to Know our Neighbor: Butte, America

Across the Homestake Pass lies Bozeman’s westward neighbor: Butte, Montana. It is easy to pass by the small metropolis when driving on I-90 without noticing much more than the reddened ridges of the Berkeley Pit or the illuminated ‘M’’ of Montana Tech.  

From the freeway, you wouldn’t know that Butte has been globally known as the Richest Hill on Earth, was the foundation for what was once the world’s fourth largest company and served as a top destination for immigrants coming into the United States. In short, it’s worth stopping by and getting to know.

Mile High, Mile Deep: Butte Then & Now

In the 1860s, Butte was a small mining camp in the Silver Bow Creek Valley. However, when Marcus Daly noticed rich veins of copper while searching for silver, Butte was rapidly propelled into a spotlight of national significance. The discovery coincided with the advent of electricity and the country was demanding copper. Daly founded what became the famous Anaconda Mining Company, and the town began to attract thousands of immigrants who had been told, “Don’t stop in America, go straight to Butte!”

By 1910, Butte was the largest copper producer in North America and the largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as Calgary and Salt Lake City. Neighborhoods reflected the diverse backgrounds of their inhabitants — Irish, Cornish, Italians, Serbians, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese and African-American, to name just a few. During its peak in 1916, the city was home to over 250 saloons and a well-known red-light district where thousands of women lived and worked.

The mines were extensive, some reaching almost a mile beneath the surface. However, those who labored in the shafts faced extremely dangerous working conditions. A constant tension existed between the Anaconda Mining Company and the miners, who formed unions and frequently organized strikes and protests.

This history is what brought MSU professor Mary Murphy, Ph.D., to Montana. Originally from the East Coast, Murphy studied labor history for her master’s thesis and dissertation, and came to Butte for that reason. After all, the Western Federation of Miners, the most significant labor union of the West, was founded there, and the Wobblies were also active — but the town’s unions went beyond the miners.

“Butte had a highly organized labor force. One of its nicknames was actually the ‘Gibraltar of Unionism,’” Murphy said. “There were of course the miners, but also carpenters, plumbers, laundry workers, theater ushers — virtually everybody belonged to a union.”

The Pit

After World War I, production slowed down, and Butte has never regained the population or popularity of its mid 1910’s peak. When the underground mines were nearing the point of closure in the 1950’s, open-pit mining practices moved in, beginning with the Berkeley Pit. This type of mining differed from previous underground operations, as it used non-selective measures to extract copper. Although profitable, this method creates more waste.

Associate Professor Tim LeCain, Ph.D., has written extensively on the Berkeley Pit, which blends his focuses in environmental and technological history. He explained how the area that is now the Pit was originally the site of two neighborhoods and homes that were demolished for continued excavation.

“It’s kind of an irony. The pit was supposed to keep Butte alive as a copper mining community, but to do so they literally ate up the community,” LeCain said. “There’s got to be some kind of metaphor there about the modern world. We keep trying to keep our extraction based, consumerist society going, even when the price we pay is destroying the very thing we’re trying to preserve.”

The Berkeley Pit closed in 1982. When the pumps were turned off, water slowly filled in the crater, leaving behind the artificial lake there today. Due to the heavy metals that remain in the water, the area was classified as a Superfund site. Although remediation efforts will need to be continued for centuries, clean-up efforts have been successful and innovation is continuing.

From Past to Present

Today, Butte’s history is evident on every corner, from the extravagant brick buildings, to the Gallus frames that the community insisted be left standing as a testimony to the early days of underground mining. Murphy said that the people who live in Butte have often prioritized preserving remnants of their past.

“The most valuable thing in Butte is not the minerals underground. It’s the people who live above the ground, because they have a tremendous sense of the community,” Murphy said. “I think that was rooted in how dangerous the work was, and the antipathy between the company and the working people. That was all long ago, but the bonds that people created in looking out for each other survived.”

Things To Do & Places To See

Getting a good look at the nation’s largest Superfund site is worth the trip. The Granite Mountain Memorial Outlook offers an expansive view of the Pit, as well as further information on the Speculator Mine tragedy. It you want a close-up view, the Berkeley Pit Overlook is a $2 attraction that allows access to a viewing platform.

At 8,510 feet atop the Continental Divide stands “Our Lady of the Rockies,” a 90-foot statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks Butte. The illuminated, white figure is one of the tallest statues in the United States. The pieces of the statue were airlifted to its current location in 1985 by the Nevada Air National Guard where it now overlooks the city as a tribute to women. Tours are available from June to October.

Montana Tech opened its doors at the turn of the century in 1900. The first year in operation claimed a single building, enrolled 21 students and offered two degrees. Today, the university supports nearly 3,000 students, 73 undergraduate degrees, 21 graduate degrees and a Ph.D. program in Materials Science. After checking out their historic campus buildings, a short hike can take you to Montana Tech’s own M Trail. Next door, the World Museum of Mining unfolds the history of the university’s specialties.

Several annual events celebrate the city’s rich background, such as a bustling St. Patrick’s Day festival that celebrates Butte’s significant Irish population. Summer festivals include the widely-attended summer Montana Folk Festival, and Evel Knievel Days that commemorate the Butte native and stunt performer. Even a normal night out is unique in Butte, as open containers are prohibited between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. within city limits.

The Dumas Brothel is an enduring remnant of Butte’s infamous red-light district. Founded in 1890, it was the United States’ longest running brothel, finally closing in 1982. Although prostitution was outlawed in 1910, fines were used as a form of licensing in the early 20th century, and the bordello was allowed to operate without legal interference. The building is now home to a museum that offers tours, a gift shop and an antique store.