You’re probably thinking “Really a whole post on Butte, Montana?” With all the beautiful places I’ve been visiting and all the time in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, why a post on Butte? The answer is simply because it was such an awesome surprise, well to me anyway. Butte was described by my Moon guidebook as being in a “pre-ghost town state” From what I saw when I was there on Sunday, I think they can drop the pre. I was waiting for a tumbleweed to roll down the street in front of me.
The thing about places like this is it forces you to use your imagination and think back to a time when Butte was at the center of the action and at the center it was!. Not only was Butte at the forefront once, but because of its rich mining history it was a hugely prosperous town and the richest, most influential city in Montana for a very long time. The politicians of Butte controlled the entire state, The Anaconda Mining Company dominated everything in Montana up until the 1950’s. The whole city has a feeling of complete and total faded granduer. It’s easy to walk through Butte and imagine what it was like 100 years ago, it must have been fascinating! There were over 140 working mines at one point and the evidence of that is still visible everywhere with these presence of these huge ominous towers that were used to lower men into the mines. They are both erie and beautiful at the same time.
For those of you that might find the history of Butte as fascinating as I do, here is a brief history courtesy of “Bigskyfishing.com”. Otherwise feel free to skip past the history lesson and on to more fantastic photos of historic Butte below it .
Before beginning to touch upon what Butte is today, it is necessary to provide a quick history of Butte. Without understanding the basic history of Butte, it makes it much more difficult to understand what the city is today.
Butte began as nothing more than a bunch of mining camps back in the early 1870’s. Then, silver and copper was discovered. This discovery brought in a flood of new companies and people to Butte. By the late 1870’s, a large and bustling city center had emerged – and was growing larger literally by the day. Then, as fate would have it, a fire in 1879 burned down the entire central business district. Following this disaster, the Butte city council passed a law that required all new buildings downtown (known as “Uptown Butte”) to be built from brick or stone – most of which still stand today and what help make Butte such a historic and unique city.
While silver and gold were actively mined in Butte, it was copper that truly put Butte on the map. Following the development of electricity, the demand for copper mushroomed. The demand for copper continued to increase – and really spiked during World War I, where copper was used in every single rifle bullet (much of which came from Butte). Indeed, it is estimated that Butte supplied around 1/3 of the copper for the United States in the late 1800’s and the early part of the 1900’s.
The World War I era was truly the boom time for Butte – as demand soared for its minerals. Indeed, the city of Butte claims in one of their signs that right after World War I, Butte was the most prosperous town in the whole United States!
Not to miss out on all this prosperity, big business started getting heavily involved. Standard Oil Company, though the purchase of numerous mines and smelters, formed a conglomerate called the Amalgmated Copper Mining Company in 1899, which soon became the Anaconda Mining Company. Perhaps not coincidentally, following the emergence of this large company, many problems in the form of management-labor disputes started happening. Numerous strikes on behalf of Labor and strike-breaker actions on the part of the companies began to commonly play out. These confrontations between labor and management even led to the shooting death of several miners by the hired security of the mines.
The Anaconda Mining Company got so big, in fact, that by the late 1920’s it was the fourth largest company in the world – and by far the largest company in Montana. It owned virtually every mine “on the hill” in Butte (the “hill” is the hill above and around Butte that contained all the minerals and where most active mining was done).
During the 1930’s and 40’s, Butte continued to pour out tons of copper every day, although the Great Depression of the 1930’s led to less demand for the minerals a resulting decline in population.
It was the 1950’s, though, that really began to change things for Butte. The Anaconda Mining Company, to reduce the costs involved in the labor-intensive nature of underground mining, started to conduct open strip mining. Thus, instead of tunneling down for the copper, entire hillsides were simply removed. The legacy of this is completely obvious today, too, in the form of the Berkeley Pit and other nearby strip mines (some of which are still active strip mines today). The other legacy of this strip mining is that two towns and countless homes that were once located “on the hill” were completely destroyed.
Throughout the remainder of the 1900’s, mining was still conducted in Butte, with the large strip mine – the Berkley Pit – shut down to active mining operations in 1982. However, fewer and fewer people worked in the industry, leading to a steady loss of both businesses and people from Butte.
Further adding injury to a loss of population, the environmental disaster that Butte was finally became noticed. The Superfund Act declared the area around Butte, including the Berkeley Pitt, as a Superfund Site – the largest in the United States. The reason for the Superfund designation was because all the heavy metals lying around on the surface of the ground leached toxic metals into the nearby rivers and into the water table. Before action was taken to clean this up, it was common for the Clark Fork River (which begins just to the west of Butte) to literally run red during heavy rains.
The Anaconda Mining Company in 1977 merged into the Arco Company. ARCO then ceased all mining operations in Butte in 1983 (although they still ended up paying for the Superfund Cleanup that followed). Strip mining operations resumed in 1983 when Montana Resources started active strip mining in adjacent areas near the Berkeley Pit).
The Berkely Pit Wikipedia Entry:
The Berkeley Pit is a former open pit copper mine located in Butte, Montana, United States. It is one mile long by half a mile wide with an approximate depth of 1,780 feet (540 m). It is filled to a depth of about 900 feet (270 m) with water that is heavily acidic (2.5 pH level), about the acidity of cola or lemon juice. As a result, the pit is laden with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals that leach from the rock, including arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid.
The mine was opened in 1955 and operated by Anaconda Copper and later by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), until its closure in 1982. When the pit was closed, the water pumps in the nearby Kelly shaft, at a depth of 3,800 feet, were turned off, and groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month. Since the pit closure in 1982, the level has risen to within 150 feet of the natural groundwater level.
The pit and its water present a serious environmental problem because the water, with dissolved oxygen, allows pyrite and sulfide minerals in the ore and wall rocks to decay, releasing acid. When the pit water level eventually reaches the natural water table, estimated to occur by around 2020, the pit water will reverse flow back into surrounding groundwater, polluting into Silver Bow Creek which is the headwaters of Clark Fork River. The acidic water in the pit carries a heavy load of dissolved heavy metals. In fact, the water contains so much dissolved metal (up to 187 ppm Cu) that some material is mined directly from the water.
In the 1990s plans were devised for solving the groundwater problem. Water flowing into the pit has been diverted to slow the rise of the water level. Plans have been made for more extensive treatment in the future. The Berkeley Pit has since become one of the largest Superfund sites.
The pit is currently a tourist attraction, with an adjacent gift shop. A $2 admission fee is charged to go out on the viewing platform.
Some Shots From Around Town
A Few Final Thoughts On Butte
While it’s glory days may be a thing of the past, Butte is certainly not down and out. There were a lot of historic homes being renovated and there seemed to be a real pride in this once great Montana City.
It is the birthplace of Evil Knievel and I am HUGELY disappointed that I won’t be able to attend Evel Knievel Days an enormous yearly celebration starting tomorrow.
I apologize for referring to it as Butt, Montana for the few weeks before I saw it, no disrespect was intended although I do still think it’s kind of funny, so did at least one other person, one of the highway signs along I-90 has the “e” painted out of it.
Copper Mining boomed in Butte for one other very important reason, Thomas Edison discovering electricity and the need for copper skyrocketed.
The Berkeley Pit continues to be a HUGE environmental threat and if that toxic water ever leaks into the Butte water supply, the town would most likely be done for.
A lot of people probably would have passed by Butte without giving it a second thought while heading for more glamorous places like Glacier National Park, Missoula, Montana or Couer D’Alene Idaho. The last two places I did stop and visit and they were indeed beautiful, but Butte was a special highlight for me. I’ve always been a sucker for off the beaten path places and Butte surely qualifies.
I’m really enjoying learning more and more about the history of the West and how there were so many brave, smart people who forged out this way to make a better life for themselves and their families. In an age where technology is the driving force of the world, I’m finding a genuine connection and respect for a time when life was simpler, harder maybe but simpler with a sense of adventure. I’m glad that sense of adventure still exists and parts of the West are certainly still wild and undiscovered at least by us city slickers anyway!