Butte, America

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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!”

 
In the 1950s the city made a Pyrrhic stab at modernizing by digging an open-pit mine right inside the city limits.

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.

TO PLAN A TRIP