Butte, Montana

Butte, Montana ca. 1910
Butte, Montana ca. 1910

Butte History

Webmaster's note: Butte, Montana is the most historically significant mining town in North America. My first visit to Butte in the early 2000s is the event that spurred the creation of Western Mining History. Butte is a remarkable place to visit today, and anyone with an interest in mining or the history of the West should consider visiting this historic city.

Butte Montana
Modern view of Butte, Montana

I will introduce Butte the same way I was introduced to it over two decades ago, with the text from a historical marker in town:

Richest Hill on Earth

Long known as the "Richest Hill on Earth" Butte produced more mineral wealth than any other mining district in the world up to the middle of the 20th century. To date over 48 billion dollars of wealth has been unearthed from this hill.

Butte Montana
View of the mines on "The Richest Hill on Earth" - Butte, Montana ca. 1909

This extraordinary phenomenon emerged at the height of the industrial revolution when the mining hill became the most concentrated area of industrial machines on Earth. The colossal machines spawned the most influential labor market anywhere, the most ethnically diverse population in the country, the largest red light district in the American West, nine railroads, the largest network of underground workings per square mile in the world (over 10,000 miles of tunneling), more wealth per citizen than any other comparable place up to that time, and a titanic struggle for the hill's riches by both entrepreneurs and laborers.

But over a century of mining left a legacy of exposed toxic mine waste and polluted water. Thus here at the headwaters of the Columbia River and in the most biologically diverse area of North America, Butte became the site of the nation's largest environmental cleanup. Explore more of the largest historic district in the American West both around town and on this site.

Butte Montana
Main Street Butte, Montana ca. 1908

From Gold Camp to the World's Greatest Mining City

The text in this section was provided by Butte historian Richard I. Gibson.

Although explorers had passed through Summit Valley where Butte stands today as early as 1856, Butte’s history really begins in 1864. Prospectors were branching out from Montana’s first gold rush that began in Bannack and Virginia City, about 100 miles south of Butte, in 1862.

Scouring every gulch in western Montana, they did find gold in Silver Bow Creek near the present-day Interstate near Butte, and they went up on Butte’s hill where they found rock outcrops bearing gold. This was enough to put Butte on the map as a boom town in the 1860s, with at least 500, and maybe as many as 1500 people, although the placers at Silver Bow City, about four miles west of Butte, usually kept more people busy than Butte at that time.

The problem was, the easy-to-find gold played out rather quickly, and by 1874, Butte’s population was down to 61 (some sources say 241; in any event, the town was nearly gone) scrabbling miners, many of them Chinese. The good news from Butte’s point of view is that by the next year, 1875, some of the prospectors had returned, and this time they analyzed the rocks, finding some hidden gold, a surprising amount of hidden silver, and an unbelievable amount of hidden copper—which no one cared about. You made pennies out of copper and little else.

Butte Montana
Main Street Butte, Montana ca. 1892

Transition to Copper Mining

Although gold drew the prospectors, it was silver discoveries beginning in 1875 that brought them back and kept them here, and it was copper that ultimately made them rich.

Butte needed one more year: in 1876, the telephone was invented, followed in 1879 by the electric light. Western Union had established the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, but the telephone and electric light were the real drivers behind copper consumption, beginning in the late 1870s. Such wonderful new devices demanded copper for transmission wires, and Butte was at the right place at the right time, holding more copper than anywhere known on earth. The boom was on, led by silver but with copper becoming increasingly important.

Butte Montana underground miners
Drillers working underground in Butte mine 1900 feet below surface

Butte went from the handful of residents in 1874 to 3,363 in the 1880 census, about 23,000 by 1890, and on to a peak of close to 100,000 in 1917. In 1917, Butte was the largest city in the whole vast area from Minneapolis to Denver to Salt Lake City to Spokane, and not just the largest, but the richest as well, thanks to the wealth coming from beneath the earth.

Butte Montana
View of the mines at Butte, Montana ca. 1910

Everyone was coming to Butte: Immigrants by the thousand, from all over the world. By most estimates at least 30 different nationalities and ethnic groups were represented in Butte, led by the Irish at around 20,000 in the 1910s, followed by all varieties of British (English, Cornish, Welsh, Scottish, Devonshire men, and others), Italians, multiple groups from Eastern Europe (Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Czechs, Slovakians, and others), and even as many as 2,500 Chinese, in what was probably the largest intermountain Chinatown in North America. In 1920, about a third of Butte’s population weren’t just of foreign ancestry, they were foreign-born.

Butte Montana
President Theodore Roosevelt gives speech to crowd at Butte, Montana May 27, 1903

Businessmen, entrepreneurs, opportunists, ladies of the evening, and the entertainers of the day all came to Butte. Celebrities from Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin to Sarah Bernhardt and Clark Gable all played in Butte. They came because there was a large population with a lot of money.

The Copper Kings

During the initial sustained boom from the 1870s through the 1890s, mining in Butte was dominated by the Copper Kings, competitive leaders of industry.

Pennsylvania-born William A. Clark got his start in the 1863-64 gold rush in Bannack and Virginia City and took over mines in Butte as a banker.

Butte Montana
William Andrews Clark and daughters at Butte's Columbia Gardens ca. 1917

Marcus Daly, a native of Ireland, was hired for his experience in the Comstock silver lode in Nevada, coming to Butte in 1876 to manage and develop the silver mines in Walkerville on the northern edge of the Butte mining district. He made enough money and connections to purchase the Anaconda Mine, where incredible discoveries of copper in the early 1880s put his Anaconda Company on the map.

The third Copper King, F. Augustus Heinze, located claims on small unclaimed plots, then proceeded to focus on legal efforts to gain control of existing underground ore systems, with considerable success.

F. Augustus Heinze
F. Augustus Heinze

William Clark’s political ambitions, including a bribery scandal in the 1899 US Senate election, contributed to the eventual passage of the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution, allowing for direct popular election of senators rather than by easily-bribed state legislators. Heinze took the money from his sale of assets in Butte in 1906 to New York, where with his brother he attempted to corner much of the copper market. That led to the banking panic of 1907, and eventually led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

Just before he died in 1900, Marcus Daly essentially sold his mining operations to a consortium of Standard Oil Trust investors, who created an umbrella corporation, the Amalgamated Copper Company, in 1899. Eventually the Amalgamated came to own essentially every mining and milling operation in Butte, together with most of the newspapers and many other businesses. They changed their name to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1915.

Marcus Daly
Marcus Daly

One could say that Marcus Daly “won” the war of the copper kings, since it was his company that became the all-encompassing Anaconda, but William Clark outlived him by 25 years and when he died, his fortune was estimated at about $200,000,000 in 1925 dollars – probably the second richest man in the world after John D. Rockefeller.

Butte Montana
W.A. Clark's "Copper King Mansion" still stands in Butte

Miners' Unions and the Murder of Frank Little

Ultimately, Butte’s miners created more than 10,000 miles of underground passages. On the way they also created some of the first and most powerful labor unions in America, making for momentous, dramatic, and internationally important history. Butte was called the Gibraltar of Unionism, and its first miners’ union, established June 13, 1878, ultimately became Local #1 of the Western Federation of Miners.

Butte Montana Miners Union Hall 1914
1914 view of the Miners Union Hall in Butte, Montana after being destroyed by explosives

Labor strife led union organizer Frank Little to Butte in 1917, on behalf of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Frank Little was here to support a strike that ensued after the Granite Mountain Mine fire that killed 168 miners in June 1917, the worst hard-rock mine disaster in U.S. history to this day.

After two weeks of radical speeches, Frank Little was lynched. And although his killers were never identified, the suspicion was and is strong that they worked at the behest of the Anaconda Company, in concert with elements of the Butte police force. People visit Butte today from all over the world just to see Frank Little’s grave.

Butte's Long Decline and the Famous Pit

With the crash in copper demand following the end of World War I, Butte began to lose population, a trend that continued for the next 70 years, so that by 1990 Butte’s population had fallen from nearly 100,000 to about 35,000, which has held steady since then.

But the huge city of the 1910s is reflected in the architectural heritage of Butte, which together with the town of Anaconda is the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark District, with nearly 6,000 contributing historic properties, including 15 surviving mine headframes. Most of the historic buildings date to the 1870s to the early 1920s and include the second skyscraper built west of the Mississippi, opulent mansions and hotels, and dozens of homes that exemplify the history of working men and women.

Convertors Butte & Boston Smelters
Convertors, Butte & Boston Smelters

By 1955, the cost of underground mining was becoming a factor in the Anaconda Company’s economics. Not to mention the fact that it was dangerous—more than 2,300 men died in a century of underground mining here. Beginning that year, the Berkeley Pit proceeded to “take it all,” creating a huge hole in the ground that was a more economical way of getting the rock in the box.

When it shut down in 1982 due to international economic factors (mostly, Chile coming to the fore as the world’s 600-pound gorilla of copper production, and associated low copper prices), the Berkeley Pit was a mile and a half wide, more than a mile across, and 1800 feet deep. But when you look across the Pit from the viewing stand today, you only see about 700 feet of rock on the high wall; the water is about 1100 feet deep. For the full story of the water’s rise and the huge environmental problems and solutions related to it, visit Pitwatch.

Berkeley Pit Butte Montana
The Berkeley Pit at Butte

As the Pit grew, ethnic neighborhoods were destroyed. Meaderville (largely Italian), McQueen (eastern Europeans, including Slovenians, Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians, and others), East Butte, Columbia Gardens, and much of the East Side, Finntown, and Dublin Gulch were lost to the pit or its debris.

Copper Legacy

So was it all worth it? Worth 10,000 miles of tunnels, 2,300 deaths, destruction of ethnic neighborhoods, and an environmental catastrophe that extends 120 miles down the Clark Fork River to Missoula? Well, it is entirely correct to say that Butte’s copper electrified the nation.

Butte Montana
Mt. Con. Mine Headframe

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Butte was the single largest producer of copper, not just in the U.S., but in the world. From about 1905 to 1917, Butte produced between a quarter and a third of all the copper on earth. Butte certainly contributed significant copper to U.S. war efforts, from the Spanish-American War to Viet Nam.

Butte Montana
Owsley Block - Butte, Montana ca. 1890. This magnificent building burned down in 1973

There are even possible beneficial organisms living in the Berkeley Pit water and nowhere else on earth, extremophile organisms that show potential against some kinds of cancer.

In 1977 the Anaconda Company was sold to Atlantic Richfield Oil Company (ARCO). Within five years, the uneconomic conditions and environmental obligations led ARCO to terminate all mining operations, including the smelter in Anaconda and the Berkeley Pit. ARCO is owned today by British Petroleum (BP), which also owns the environmental liability; BP has spent more than a billion dollars on the cleanup.

Butte Montana
Historic buildings at Butte

Today there is one mine in operation, Montana Resources’ Continental Pit east of the Berkeley Pit, with about 350 employees. The main product remains copper, with molybdenum an important by-product, and they are one of the most efficient low-grade copper producers in the world.

What about Butte’s claim to being the “Richest Hill On Earth”? In the U.S. there is no question; the US Geological Survey has calculated the value of the big mineral districts and Butte, going away, is the most valuable. In the world it is harder to say, because we don’t know the value from the Incas, the Aztecs, or the Roman Empire, but for one little mineral district, only about five square miles on the surface, Butte probably is the most valuable anywhere on the planet.

Butte Montana
Finlen Hotel - Butte, Montana

The Butte Explosion of 1895

In January of 1895, a warehouse fire ignited a large store of dynamite resulting in a great explosion that devastated several blocks of Butte, killing an estimated 58 people. Click here to read the full article: Total Devastation: The Butte, Montana Explosion of 1895

Butte Montana
Volunteers help sort through the devastation of the 1895 explosion in Butte, Montana

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