Butte, America


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.

Butte was where one of the world’s biggest corporations took on one of the world’s toughest unions.

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: