- Historic Sites
POISONED, RUINED, AND self-cannibalized, this city is still the grandest of all boomtowns
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
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?”