Butte’s Mining History
As I plowed down the highway toward Butte, I turned through a cut in the hill and suddenly, before me was an excavation pit; a landscape that was beautiful even in its destruction. I was seeing my first glimpse of Butte, where evidence of its mining history was still everywhere to be seen.
My first view of Butte, Montana was actually Berkeley Pit — a toxic open pit mine with water at the acidity level of a lemon. To see it, you pay $3.00 to enter a tunnel that leads to a viewing platform of the one-mile long and 1,780 feet deep toxic waste site.
“As you go through the tunnel, you’ll hear some buzzing and alarms. We pipe it through a loudspeaker to scare away the birds,” the gift shop clerk told me as she handed me my ticket.
That seemed humane. The toxicity of the water kills almost anything that encounters it, though new fungal and bacterial species have adapted to the harsh conditions inside the Pit.
The Berkeley Pit
The acidic water contains high concentrations of heavy metals and toxic chemicals, including copper, iron, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid. There are efforts to clean it up now. The Anaconda Mining Company, who opened the pit in 1955 and the pit’s more recent owner, ARCO, quit mining copper from the pit in 1982. On Earth Day, as a matter of fact.
But Berkeley Pit was only one of the many mines excavating the copper and silver that made Butte a pivotal part of U.S. history.
Mining in Butte
Headframes dot the hillside of Upper Butte. I was drawn to the utilitarian silhouettes they made against Montana’s Big Sky. I was reminded of the Dutch windmills that dot the landscape in The Netherlands, or wind turbine fields found in pockets all over the world. It seemed like there were so many of them! Headframes everywhere! But I soon learned that the number still standing are a very small percentage of the mines that once operated in Butte.
To put it in perspective, by 1896, a five square mile section of Butte was producing 210,000,000 pounds of copper a year, over 26% of the world’s supply. Butte became known as The Richest Hill on Earth.
The World Museum of Mining
The Underground Tour
Visitors to the World Museum of Mining can choose to take a 65-foot or 100-foot underground tour into the Orphan Girl Mine. I was treated to a 100-foot tour which I was thrilled to experience since I come from coal-mining ancestry. I hoped to learn a little more about what their jobs were like. No coal at the Orphan Girl Mine, though. They actually tapped a silver vein in this mine, though most of Butte’s mines harvested copper.
Our tour included explanations of many of the tools used in mining, and the processes and skill these dynamite blasters, hoist operators, and pick-axe miners used during their daily jobs down a 2,700-foot shaft. Equipment evolved, but slowly. Many improvements seemed to be in reaction to a catastrophic mine shaft fire in 1917. It was the most deadly event in underground hard rock mining in United States history.
I was surprised to learn that students at the adjacent Montana Tech School sometimes used the Orphan Girl mine as their research and practice laboratory. The art of mining manually, without the technology we might use today is becoming lost. Engineering and science students travel into the mine shaft as part of their studies to learn more about the rocks and metals still buried in the mine’s untapped walls; to learn about testing for gases, engineering, explosives, and all sorts of mechanics and history — right next door to their school.
Visiting the World Museum of Mining
In addition to exploring the mine shaft and learning about mining history, visitors can wander through the 1890’s mining town, with 15 intact historic structures and approximately 35 buildings constructed from old materials.
Visitors can get a glimpse of what Butte might have been like back then. There was a saloon, a Chinese laundry, a brothel, a pharmacy, an optometrist’s, a bank. You can peek through the windows or walk into the shops of Hell Roarin’ Gulch. The buildings are fully stocked with thousands of period artifacts and you get the idea that Butte was a bustling city in the mining heyday.
Riches From Mining
Butte, Montana experienced a wealth of cosmopolitan living during its days of intensive copper mining. Butte’s bounty of copper just as electricity was becoming more advanced meant that Butte was one of the first cities to enjoy electricity.
In 1882, the first streets in Butte, Montana were lit with electricity. Shortly after that, electric cables were installed in the mining tunnels, making them well lit and a little bit safer place for miners to work.
Butte was a copper boomtown and visionaries such as William A. Clark became multi-millionaires investing in westward expansion. Clark built and owned a railroad to carry ore west, then realized he needed a depot for the steaming trains to stop and refuel. That small railroad town was Las Vegas.
Clark’s Copper King Mansion is still a stately landmark in the city and is open to the public as a bed & breakfast, or for scheduled tours throughout the day.
Butte’s history is entrenched with mining. Businesses boomed as copper was hauled out of the hundreds of mines beneath Montana’s “Richest Hill in the World.” Prospectors and Chinese immigrant laborers flocked to the town. Money flowed and wealth and precious metals mined in Butte were carried off by trains. You can see evidence of this mining town’s prosperity everywhere.
But you can also see the destruction it’s done to the land.
Butte was probably my favorite place to visit in Montana. I loved the history that’s still happening there. You can see the shadows of the old Butte stilling present in today’s Butte. History is accessible there. You can stay in one of the Copper King Mansion’s elegant bedrooms. You can climb down a mine shaft and see what thousands of men did every day. You can eat Chop Suey at the oldest restaurant in the U.S. Or you can just explore the streets and shops that capture the history there.
Has Butte piqued your interest?