History of Butte
I feel like I have visited mining towns all summer and Butte, Montana is another interesting one. Established in 1864 as mining camp, Butte was the first major city in Montana. It straddles the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains is located on the “richest hill on earth”.
Butte once had a population of 100,000 with 20,000 miners and many immigrants. In fact, today, Butte is home to the largest Irish American population per capita in the United States. Now, with a population of approximately 35,000 Butte is the 5th largest city in Montana.
Butte once supplied 25% of the World’s copper and 50% of the United States’ copper. Through its history, it has produced more than $48 billion worth of ore, mostly copper, but also silver and gold. As a result of the mining, Butte is the largest superfund site in the USA.
Things to Do in Butte
While mining still takes place in Butte, it is not like it used to be. Today there are only a few hundred miners, and the economy relies more on healthcare, tourism, and environmental cleanup industries. Butte is also home to Montana Technological University.
Fortunately, many of the historic buildings and mineshaft headframes as been preserved. As a result, Butte’s Uptown Historic District, with over 6,000 buildings, is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States.
I really enjoyed my day in Butte and started it the Mineral Museum on the Montana Tech campus. The museum is free, though it accepts donations. The museum displays a variety of minerals and gems, including many sapphires in raw and final form. It also features dinosaur bones, a fluorescent rock room, and an earthquake center.
World Museum of Mining
The Mineral Museum is practically next door to the World Museum of Mining. I highly recommend visiting this mining museum and taking the mine tour. The tours of the Orphan Girl mine begin at 10:30am and are offered every 30 minutes during opening hours. It lasts 1.5 hours and is very interesting.
It begins above ground in the mining laundry room and office. It moves into the Hoist House and then goes down 100 feet into the mine. Our guide, once a miner, was absolutely spectacular. He knew all the history and explained mining procedures in layman terms. He provided many facts like there are 10,000 miles of tunnels in the Butte mines! He was also able to compare mining today to the past.
Before his time as a miner, they used to use mules to pull the ore cars. To get them into the mine, they’d wrap them in a straight jacket and place them upside down on their head into the small cage and lowered them down. The museum has a series of black and white photos depicting this.
Once down in the mine, they stayed there and ultimately turned blind due to the darkness. Apparently, the mules were well cared for as each had its individual miner. Clearly, today mining is much different, but it was very interesting to hear how it has progressed for the benefit of all.
The museum also showcases a replica of a mining town with many old buildings including period furnishings and has refurbished the headframe so visitors can climb up it! Definitely plan for two hours at this museum.
Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial
From the World Mining Museum, drive through historic Butte and up the hill to the Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial. The accident at Granite Mountain Speculator Mine in 1917 was the largest hard rock mining disaster in US history.
Ironically, the mining company was installing an electric cable for a sprinkler system to improve mining safety conditions. Upon lowering the cable, it fell from the surface. A foreman with a carbide lamp descended to inspect the damage and caught the wire on fire which climbed up the shaft.
Smoke and carbon monoxide quickly filled the tunnels. Since the tunnels were connected to other mines, some miners were able to escape from other shafts, but 168 passed from asphyxia. Only a few were discovered alive 55 hours later after they barricaded themselves behind bulkheads.
The memorial includes the audio story, flags representing the miner’s heritage, and much is made from core samples. It also provides a decent view into the open mine Berkley Pit (more on this later).
Top of the World Trail
Next to the memorial is the Top of the World Trail. The interpretive trail passes many headframes, old hoist houses, and provides nice views of Butte. I can only imagine how busy this area once was.
After taking the trail, stop by Lexington Gardens and grab a geocache. For that matter, there are several geocaches on the Top of the World Trail. The parking lot for Lexington Gardens is bigger than the gardens, but they represent many of Butte’s firsts. It is the site of Butte’s first stampmill, first smelter, first high school, and one of the first mining claims.
Continue down the hill to the Berkeley Pit. The Berkeley is a former open pit copper mine. Opened in 1955, it was originally operated by Anaconda Copper Mining Company and later sold to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). ARCO closed the mine in 1982 due to the falling price of copper.
With the closure of the mine, the water pumps were turned off, so water from the surrounding aquifers began filling the pit at one foot per month. Heavy metal and dangerous chemicals such as arsenic and sulfuric acid have leached into the water making it heavily acidic and deadly. It is so toxic that bird cannons are shot to keep birds from landing in the water during migration.
Despite the toxicity, the pit was left to fill up, monitored and not deemed it wouldn’t be a threat to the natural water table until now. As a result, a water treatment plant was constructed in 2019 to clean the water and release it. The treated water is supposed to be some of the cleanest drinking water available!
For a small admission fee, you can walk out on a platform and see the toxic water. I only viewed the pit from the Memorial, so my picture does not show the water.
Places to Eat in Butte
After taking in Butte’s mining history, stop by Truzzolino Tamales for a tamale or a meat and potato pasty. They have been a mainstay business in Butte for 125 years. Since pasties were a favorite dish of the miners, good hot or cold and easy to carry, that’s what I ordered. Just order at the window and pay in cash.
Wash it down with a beer from the award-winning Butte Brewing Company. They feature a selection of beers, pizza, and a nice patio.
Butte Trolley Tour
If you haven’t gotten enough of Butte’s history yet, you can take a 2 hour trolley tour of Butte which takes you by Montana Tech, the World Museum of Mining, the Berkeley Pit, the Mai Wah Museum, the Clark Chateau, the Dumas Brothel, the Copper King Mansion and more.
Copper King Mansion
In fact, you can even get a room and stay the night at the Copper King Mansion. The Copper King Mansion was one of many homes owned around the world by WA Clark, one of the three copper kings. By 1900 his estimated worth was $50,000,000, and he was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world.
He built the first smelter and stamp mill in Butte along with the electric company, water company, and electric railway company. He also built the amusement park, Columbia Gardens. Admission to the park was free, banking on the revenues from the trolley line to the site. And trolley line fees were were not charged to kids under 16 every Thursday for children’s’ day. The park operated for 70 years before it burned down.
Clark did other business as well. He is the only man to completely finance his own railroad without requiring any corporate capital or stock. In Nevada, he owned a ranch for his miner and railroad workers that suffered from chronic diseases. He later sold the ranch for development of a small village, now known as Las Vegas!
The home now operates as a Bed & Breakfast. Tours of the 34-room mansion with many original artifacts are offered four times a day and are free to guests staying at the B&B. There is a fee for visitors.
I was pleasantly surprised by Butte and wished I would have allotted time for an overnight stay in this historic mining town. I expect in ten years, many of the abandoned buildings will be refurbished, and it will be a fun tourist destination. ETB