Montana has plenty of outstanding scenery and awesome sites, from the plethora of hot springs available for soaking in Yellowstone, to the vast gorgeousness of Glacier National Park. But for the tourist looking for something a bit less conventional, look no further than Butte, Montana.
With a present population of about 34,000 – once occupied by upwards of 100,000 – much of Butte’s ancestry is well preserved, uncorrupted, and accessible. The city experienced a cultural explosion in the early 19th century, which transformed it from a blunt and gruff encampment of just a few hundred to a booming, cultivated mining mecca in its prime.
World Museum of Mining, Butte
Even now and then, the memories of the blood and sweat drenched through the underground sacrifices of Butte’s miners are ubiquitous. Mine refuse heaps and alleys were children’s playgrounds. Arduous toil. Precious metals. Barren earth. These mines made ghosts of men, men out of boys, widows out of wives, and fulfilled American dreams. The story of the mines of Butte are preserved in the World Museum of Mining.
Reporter Walter Winchell once called Butte ”a disgrace to decent people everywhere.” At one point the city was loaded with millionaires, had a high quality of social and cultural life, and was a campaign stop for presidents. Interestingly, Butte is home to one of the country’s biggest National Historic Landmark Districts, with more than 4,000 important and memorable buildings spread out across the Richest Hill on Earth. At one point, Butte rapidly burgeoned into a mini- New York City: deluxe hotels, fancy dining, unfettered gambling, thriving entertainment, classy theatres, and a gigantic amusement park.
Evel Knievel Days, Butte MT
From decorated head frames marking old mine shafts, to some of the country’s finest, vintage Victorian homes and mansions, to richly detailed 19th- century churches, Butte is a fascinating piece of Montana and U.S. history and architecture. Even today, wacky and screwy stuff takes place here: the vestiges of Butte’s Chinese community take to the streets every February 4th for what’s billed as the shortest, loudest, and chilliest Chinese New Year’s Parade anywhere in the world; held the last weekend in June, Evel Knievel Days is a beer-swilling, motorcycle-riding extravaganza, which culminates with one of Knievel’s stuntman buddies hopping off the Finlen Motel (Butte’s highest building) while lit on fire.
Berkeley Pit, Butte, MT
Excavated for gold, silver and copper, the region had already earned the moniker of “The Richest Hill on Earth” by the end of the nineteenth century. Electrical needs increased demand for copper, so much so that Butte became a booming metropolis by World War I.
Copper mining in the area flourished in Butte, coming to a head with the advent of the Berkeley Pit in 1955. After the construction pumps and drains were turned off, however, thick gray piles of waste rock and other tailings began to show. Because its water contains enormous concentrations of copper and zinc waste, the Berkeley Pit – more than 275 meters (900 feet) deep – is listed as a Federal Superfund Disaster site.
Dumas Brothel, Butte MT
Down the block is the boarded-up Dumas Brothel, where three thoughts and broodings enter the mind: the notion of sudden violence, the vision of erupting saloon fistfights, and the appearance of dangerous institutions. The Dumas Brothel was the longest-operating establishment of its kind in America, running from 1890 to 1982. It has been written that at one point there were 2,400 “ladies of the evening” working in Butte. Tours show the underground tunnels where men could visit while not having to jeopardize their reputations; the Richest Hill on Earth overlooks more than 2,000 miles of underground tunnels.
Butte America History
Butte is a city graced by unparalleled historic charm, a rough-hewn, sinewy place where the physical evidence of its history is very much apparent.
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I particularly enjoyed this article as the Irish miners on my mother’s side immigrated to Butte from West Cork in the 1870’s after Cork copper mines had become mined-out.
Love history so this place would be right up my street!
Great read, Brian. Butte has some history. I passed by several times but never actually went there. Will try again.
I love Butte Montana and been there few times. Love your post and wonderful writing.