Butte, America

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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.

 
It evokes a city in the densely packed East—until you look just a little farther and see the empty Montana prairie.

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.