POISONED, RUINED, AND self-cannibalized, this city is still the grandest of all boomtowns
It’s spooky up here on the top floor of the Metals Bank & Trust Building. Shards of glass and crumbled plaster crunch underfoot, obscuring the elegant tile pattern of the corridor floor. Heavy oak doors with pebbled windows and missing knobs stand open to the hallway. Inside what used to be plush offices, the hardwood floors are buckling under porcelain washstands flecked with pigeon droppings. At one time this was some of the most exclusive real estate within a thousand miles. Now it gives me the creeps.
Still, I’ve hiked up seven flights for the view. Bracing myself in the frame of a broken window, I peer down on what was once the “richest hill on earth.” Majestic offices and apartment blocks rise below me, thick with terra-cotta embroidery. The Curtis Music Hall across the street, built in 1892, could be a fairytale castle. Beyond it, turreted mansions with broad verandas dot the hillside, rising from a dense jumble of cottages, brownstones, stores, and churches. The whole scene evokes a city in the long-inhabited, densely packed East —Boston perhaps, or Baltimore. Until, that is, I look out just a little farther to see the empty Montana prairie and beyond that a horizon of jagged, snowy mountains. The effect is disorienting.
And where are all the people? It’s rush hour, but the traffic lights are blinking uselessly at one another along the grand avenues. Few storefronts are boarded, but most of the windows above them are dark. A handful of people are making their way along sidewalks built wide enough for throngs. What happened here?
Butte, Montana, has been one of American history’s great disappearing acts. In the time that it took the United States to move in and out of the industrial age, a major city blossomed on the Continental Divide, flourished, withered, dried up, and blew away. During the early years of the century, Butte was a big, noisy cog in our national machinery, greater in population than Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix and as crucial to the economy for the copper it mined as Detroit was for engines or Pittsburgh for steel. It was a major vaudeville stop, a place no presidential candidate could miss, a daily destination for the thirty-eight passenger trains on five separate railroads. More than five hundred miles from the nearest ocean, Butte had among its thousands whole communities of people who led their entire lives speaking nothing but Serbian or Chinese, Croatian or Italian, Finnish, Spanish, German. By the time the 1920s began, Butte was the biggest and wealthiest city in a vast region stretching from Minnesota on the east and Spokane on the west and Salt Lake City on the south, the center of politics, culture, and finance for the entire inland Northwest. There was a time when you didn’t have to say, “Butte, Montana,” just “Butte.”
Now that city is gone. All that is left is a small town rattling along inside the corpse of a great one. Barely a third of Butte’s former population remains, and most of it has abandoned the majestic city on the hill for a flossy commercial suburb spread across the valley below. The Butte mines, which once produced half the country’s copper, are long dead, although everywhere you look you can see their black derricks, perched over the silent shafts. The good times in Butte were fleeting. Copper prices started sliding with the last shot of the Great War, and all through the decades that followed, Butte spiraled slowly and fitfully downward as technology pushed copper aside. Electric utilities no longer needed the metal for their transmission wires; they had lighter and cheaper aluminum. Telephone conversations could travel via fiber optics and, eventually, satellite relays. Foreign mines and scrap could supply what little copper American industry needed.
Other American cities have suffered—Flint, Michigan, and Lowell, Massachusetts, come to mind—but they were components of the automobile and textile archipelagoes, not economic giants unto themselves. They also grew up short buggy rides away from sister cities, while Butte stood alone on the vast old bison range—”an island in a sea of land,” locals called it. “In terms of its size and architecture,” says the University of Montana historian David Emmons, “Butte is like no place else I know.”
The top floor of the Metals Bank & Trust Building offers an overview, but to understand Butte, a visitor also needs an underview, a peek at the tunnels that worm their way for hundreds of miles beneath the hill to the sources of the city’s bygone riches.
On a January morning five years ago, Joe Driscoll, a stout young engineer of Irish descent, loaded me into an ore car, and we slid, Jonah-like, down the cold gullet of the earth. That day Driscoll was the last man working underground in Butte, pulling out old equipment for salvage.
“I can’t stand to see it end,” he shouted over the clatter of the ore car. The tunnel was damp and cramped and palpably dangerous, with boulders hanging low overhead and rusted equipment reaching out to gouge us at every turn. This was how Butte’s men went to work for four generations, spending themselves against dark rock for wages unheard of in the Old World. As we stared up into an old stope, a hollowed-out vein of ore thirty feet across and so high my headlamp couldn’t find where it stopped, voices returned to us as the mutter of ghosts. I could barely wait to get back to the surface, but Driscoll wanted to linger. “My last day is a week from tomorrow,” he said, idly fingering the jagged rock wall beside him. “Then I’ll be an artist for the state—drawing unemployment.”
Most of the shafts closed in the 1950s, when Butte made a Pyrrhic stab at modernizing by digging an open-pit mine right inside the city limits. As the Montana writer Ivan Doig puts it, the city spent three decades willingly “eating its own guts,” razing block after block of vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. Finntown; the Italian stronghold of Meaderville; “Dublin Gulch”; and the McQueen Addition, home to Croatians who called themselves Austrians, met the wrecking ball to make way for the Pit. For a while it looked as though the entire business district would go under too, but the Pit played out before that could happen, leaving behind, when it closed in 1983, a mile-and-a-half square that, viewed from the visitors’ platform on the southwest rim, almost defies belief. It’s one of the biggest man-made holes on earth, an inverted monument to human labor.
Among Butte’s first prospectors were itinerant Chinese, sprung from the railroads and scratching up bits of gold and silver as they sought a new livelihood. But the discovery of copper there in 1876—the year of the first telephone conversation, the year of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition with its array of inventions animated by copper-conducted electricity—changed everything. In a matter of weeks the squalid nomadic miners’ settlement around the shark-fin-shaped Big Butte became the center of the mining universe.
An old tent city of three hundred men exploded into a boomtown of five banks, seven breweries, three cigar factories, and more than one hundred saloons. By 1890 the area’s population had grown nearly a hundredfold to some twenty-three thousand people, and the newly incorporated Butte City was churning out more than a million dollars’ worth of ore a month. Butte had the nation’s first electrified train and the first labor union west of the Mississippi River, and World War I raised it even higher: Every rifle cartridge fired in the war contained an ounce of pure copper, and 1917 was Butte’s high-water mark. That year’s city directory lists more than ninety-six thousand souls, and considering the additional hordes of journeymen miners migrating through, the number present in Butte at any one time was likely much higher.
In an ironic stroke of luck for urban historians and architecture buffs, a fire wiped out the Butte business district in 1879, inspiring the new city council to pass as its tenth ordinance a ban on wood-frame structures in the center of town. Many of the exuberant stone and brick buildings remaining in uptown Butte rose soon after. Opulently frosted with cornice and gargoyle, they recall the same era and mentality that built the mansions on New York’s upper Fifth Avenue when industrialists strove to outdo one another in the architectural expression of their wealth.
Butte’s savage winters dictated the city’s peculiar layout. Nobody wanted to walk far through Montana’s shearing arctic winds, so the houses and stores were clustered tightly around the mines. People dug mineshafts in back yards, schoolyards, alleys, even basements. The proximity of mines to homes had some odd repercussions. “When I was growing up, you’d hear it in the walls: a whup-whup-whup—carumph!” remembers sixty-year-old Jiggsie Elphison. “The miners would ask my mother, ‘Dja hear us last night? We had a feeling we were near your house.’ Sometimes a family would feel the carumph! and look out the window to find a hole where the sidewalk used to be.” To this day uptown Butte feels like no other city in the West. It is darker, grittier, more vertical and compact. “The density here is what makes Butte so unusual for the West and much more like an Eastern city,” says Bob Corbett, a Butte native and architect whose own futuristic house is a hundred-foot concrete cube that once served as an ore bin.
Butte drew miners and laborers from every corner of the globe. The discovery of copper also brought Chinese and Jewish merchants to the town; indeed, the city’s first mayor was Jewish. And by the turn of the century, the government’s fourth-largest immigration office was in Butte. A 1918 survey revealed that Butte families had origins in thirty-eight different countries. The seven slender smokestacks of Butte’s Neversweat Mine were such a wellknown image around the world that immigrants would arrive at Ellis Island speaking no English, clutching only a picture of the Neversweat. Immigration officers would recognize it and help get them on the proper train.
The historian David Emmons has studied thousands of antique Butte photos and says that he has never once seen a man wearing a cowboy hat. “People in Butte never thought of themselves as Montanans,” he says. “They identified first with Butte and then with places overseas—the countries they came from or other places where copper was mined.” Still popular on baseball caps and bumper stickers here is the legend “Butte, America.”
The city began as a polyglot oddity and remains one today, retaining an intense ethnic flavor unusual not only in Montana but anywhere in rural America. Butte’s ethnic neighborhoods are gone, but this is still the only place within five hundred miles—outside of an Indian reservation—where you’re likely to hear any language besides English. Some 150 Serbian families gather every Sunday in an ornate Eastern Orthodox church for a service in the language of the old country. Mexicans celebrate the Festival of Guadalupe in Spanish. The Jewish community is big enough to maintain the city’s elegantly restored 1903-vintage synagogue and to fly a rabbi up from Los Angeles once a month for Sabbath services in Hebrew. Frank Mandic still speaks “Austrian” to the old customers at his Terminal Meat Market on Park Street, and Michael Mazzolini, a forty-two-year-old restaurateur and preservation activist born in Meaderville, hardly spoke English until he went to first grade. Even in the early 1960s, he says, Italian would get you by. “It’s like something from the last century, isn’t it?”
Although Finntown was almost entirely bulldozed to make way for the open-pit mine, Envin Niemi’s Helsinki bar was spared; today it overlooks a field of weeds that was once a Scandinavian neighborhood. When the earth behind Niemi’s subsided into an abandoned mining tunnel many years ago, the owner took advantage of the sudden topographical change to build into the bar’s underside one of Butte’s most cherished institutions: round-the-clock saunas. ( IT’S PRONOUNCED SOWNA , barks the sign above the bar, NOT SAW-NA .)
Emerging dusty and cold from my tour of the mine, I headed for the Helsinki, feeling as badly in need of a sweat as any Finnish ore mucker. The saunas aren’t elegant, but they’re clean and roaring hot. Once thoroughly smelted, I followed tradition back into the bar, where the idea is to start repoisoning oneself immediately with beer, vodka, and a bottle of homemade pickled herring that moves along the counter with a communal fork. The sign above the stuffed bison head reminds me I’m in Butte: BROKEN ENGLISH UNDERSTOOD HERE .
Since the first mineshaft was dug, the people of Butte have endured a series of plagues with remarkable humor. Miners who inhaled the dust from broken rock contracted silicosis, a slow killer also known as miner’s “con,” or consumption. Pneumonia, too, claimed many miners ascending to a Butte winter from a hundred-degree tunnel. (“When my father was a boy, he used to watch the miners explode—really explode—in a cloud of steam as they hit the cold air,” says Jim Harrington, a retired Butte High School history teacher.) Then there were the cave-ins and other catastrophes. Nobody knows exactly how many men died in the Speculator Mine fire on June 8, 1917, but it was American history’s worst hard-rock mining disaster, claiming at least 169 lives. “On average, one miner died in an accident every other day for the thirty-year stretch that ended in 1925,” says Harrington, who conducted research for a monument to the Speculator Mine victims that was dedicated last summer. “And everybody wondered why the workers fought back,” he adds.
Fight they did. Butte was the battlefield where one of the world’s biggest corporations took on one of the world’s toughest unions. The Anaconda Copper Mining Company, the fourth-largest company on earth during Butte’s zenith, owned virtually every mine on the hill by 1927 and ruled not only Butte but all Montana. “The great Commonwealth of Montana is a dual entity,” wrote Oswald Garrison Villard in The Nation in 1930. “There is the State, supposedly a free and independent part of the Union, and there is ‘the Company,’ otherwise [known as] the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. It is not always easy to differentiate between the two ...”
Against the Anaconda colossus stood a city full of workers so thoroughly organized that the labor hero “Big Bill” Haywood called it “the greatest single social force of the working class in the western part of America.” Every trade had its union backed by the muscle of Local Number One of the Western Federation of Miners, perhaps the strongest American union ever. Solidarity among unions in Butte was legendary. “You couldn’t paint your own storefront without getting picketed,” remembers Frank Mandic. Butte’s union tradition was so tenacious that it kept out the staunchly nonunion McDonald’s Corporation until 1985. At the bar of the Helsinki, an old miner still grumbles about that “Macdougall’s” out on the strip.
It was in Butte that company goons lynched Frank Little, an organizer for the radical Industrial Workers of the World. His gravestone at the bottom of Butte Hill reads like an IWW call to arms:
Clashes between Anaconda and the unions were fought in the streets and in the mines with rocks and bottles, even guns and dynamite. Every few years Butte suffered grueling months of shutdown owing to strikes, low copper prices, or company efforts to break the unions. Butte’s work was hard and dangerous but barely more so than its play.
The mines worked every hour of the day, so every eight hours another shift of miners and smeltermen would flood the bars and brothels. Although the rest of the state had closing laws, Butte tradition required barkeeps to unlock their shops on opening day and throw the keys into the gutter. The brothels were famous throughout the West, from the “parlors” to the low-rent “cribs”—individual rooms just big enough for a cot and a door opening onto the street. (One such row of cribs is now an electrical shop on Mercury Street; across the way is the old Dumas, once a famous brothel and now an antiques shop.) It was Butte that introduced keno to America, adapting it from a Chinese gambling game, and it was Butte that ended the antiliquor crusading career of Carry Nation.
Nation showed up with her ax in 1910, having busted up saloons and whiskey barrels from New York to Chicago. But on her first foray in Butte, she ran into May Maloy, a barkeep and madam who beat her so badly that Nation fled town and retired from her jihad for good.
Life in Butte has never been for the meek. Maybe because the present is so diminished and the future so uncertain, Butte tends to live in the past; people talk about copper barons a century dead as though they still walked the streets. Butte’s is a thoroughly disreputable history, and that’s exactly how Butte likes it. The visitor is shown the old whorehouses of Mercury Street and the bullet hole in the judge’s bench long before anyone gets around to mentioning the art museum. Even civic boosters recount with positive nostalgia events other cities would soon forget, like the nadir of corruption when a junkie cop held up a drugstore with his service revolver. (“How many kids does it take to play cops and robbers in Butte?” goes the joke. “One.”)
As if financial calamity weren’t enough, Butte is the nation’s number one environmental disaster. After a century of gouging and smelting the earth into giving up its riches, Butte stands coated with heavy-metal tailings and arsenic-laden smelter soot. The water is barely drinkable, the slag heaps that tower everywhere are eroding into back yards, and the Pit, which is filling with water at a rate of more than five million gallons a day, already contains an eight-hundred-foot-deep acid lake. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects the cleanup here to take years, if not decades, and millions, if not billions, of dollars.
But somehow, even this seems only to make Butte’s citizens fonder of their town. There’s civic pride—half inspiring, half perverse—in being weird enough to love with all your heart a place as wrecked, raw, and inhospitable as Butte, America. Even in 1902 Butte was such a god-forsaken place that the local writer Mary MacLane called it “near the perfection of ugliness.” And the Butte poet Berton Braley wrote in 1905:
Only those who absolutely had to leave when the Pit closed did so. The city lost forty-four hundred jobs in the eighties, and it’s a measure of how many people cherish Butte that only about that many packed up and left town. (While there’s no exact formula, the loss of one job in a city usually results in several people leaving as entire families pack their bags.) But in an era when people across the country are fretting about the erosion of community, it’s common in Butte to find three or even four generations living within walking distance of one another in Old World intimacy, often sharing meager paychecks and pensions. “Butte people have a real sense of living,” says Dan Dysinger, a Reno, Nevada, metallurgist who had to leave Butte nearly twenty years ago, “a good sense of priorities. Money is not an overriding concern. It’s being near their families, their friends, and having fun. My parents and two sisters still live there, and I’m trying to get back, ‘cause I want my kids to know what that’s about.”
Having indentured itself to “the Company,” endangered its physical health, and eaten the very earth from under its feet to stay alive, Butte is now beginning to make a living off its history. The six square miles of uptown Butte—what the EPA calls the biggest Superfund site in America—is also the second-biggest National Historic Landmark District, after downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. And now that the mines are silent and the arsenic smoke has cleared, Butte is a beguiling collection of elegant buildings wrapped in mountains and glowing in mile-high sunlight. Butte’s residents see all that and point to Montana’s growing allure as a vacation and retirement haven, and Mark Reavis, Butte’s historic preservation officer, wants more of the thousands of tourists who seek out Montana to explore this strange and vibrant chapter of American history. After all, as he asks, “Where else can you see what you see in Butte?”
Reavis, an imposing six feet five with bright red hair, can work himself into a beard-pulling, arm-waving lather extolling his town’s architecture and history. “The finest example of industrial American architecture in the country,” he exclaims during a conversation in the 1910-vintage courthouse that’s grandiose enough to be an opera house. “What took place here happened nowhere else!”
Reavis could celebrate Butte all day, but he’s off to yet another planning meeting. He punches into a worn tweed jacket with leather patches peeling from the elbows, gathers up a bundle of rolled blueprints, and suggests I try a certain Mexican lunch place around the corner. “Unusual atmosphere,” he says, and disappears, still talking, down the hall.
Following his directions, I find myself back at the Metals Bank & Trust Building, the ground floor this time, in what used to be the bank’s palatial lobby. After a beer at the old marble tellers’ counter under a distant towering ceiling, I’m shown to a table. It’s inside the old vault, and there’s a story about the vault. It took thirty-six horses two days to haul it up the hill from the railroad station, my waiter tells me. “In 1928,” he says, for of course he too is a Butte historian, “this vault held more money than any other between Minneapolis and Seattle.”
And now I’m eating enchiladas in it.