- Historic Sites
POISONED, RUINED, AND self-cannibalized, this city is still the grandest of all boomtowns
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
“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.
The war year of 1917 was Butte’s high-water mark, with the city directory listing more than ninety-six thousand citizens.
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.