Butte’s history is revealed in its skyline, the omnipresent black steel headframes, and the gaping hole in the earth known as Berkeley Pit. These are two of the more vivid reminders of a town that started as a mining camp and grew to a city of over 100,000 by 1917.
Before the gold rush of the 1860s brought prospectors and settlers to the area, Native Americans and fur traders frequented this semiarid valley. When the placer ran out in 1867, the population of about 500 dwindled to around 240. It wasn’t long though before the potential for mineral riches in the quartz deposits was recognized.
While the cost of smelting the complex copper-bearing ore was high, investors like William Andrews Clark and Andrew Jackson Davis began to develop Butte’s mines and erect mills to extract the silver and gold. The riches in the hills made Davis Montana’s first millionaire.
By 1876, Butte had become a prosperous silver camp with over 1,000 inhabitants. Marcus Daly arrived that year representing the Walker brothers, entrepreneurs from Salt Lake City. His mission was to inspect the Alice Mine for possible purchase by the brothers. Daly purchased the mine and successfully managed it for the Walkers. The town of Walkerville, which still overlooks the city of Butte, sprang up around the mine and other mines in the area.
In 1880, Daly sold his interest in the Walkers’ properties and bought the Anaconda Mine. He did so with investment money from several San Francisco capitalists, including George Hearst, the father of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Clark and Davis also attracted investors from Denver and points east. It wasn’t long before capitalists from New York and Boston bought into the huge potential of the area. During the 1880s, copper mining came into the forefront and Butte became the world’s greatest copper producer. The Union Pacific Railroad came to the area in 1881 allowing developers to build and equip smelters. The Butte smelters quickly became the best in the world at extracting the metal from the ore.
It wasn’t long before Butte began to pay a price for the riches. The air filled with toxic sulfurous smoke. Daly responded by building a giant smelter in Anaconda, just 30 miles west of Butte. To this day, the giant smokestack remains a landmark. Shortly after Daly built the smelter, the Boston and Montana Co., withholdings only second to Daly’s, built one in Great Falls. Trains carried the ore from Butte’s mines to both smelters.
In 1899, Daly teamed up with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil to create the giant Amalgamated Copper Mining Co., one of the largest trusts of the early Twentieth Century. By 1910, it had changed its name to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company swallowing several smaller mining companies along the way. The Company dominated Butte for the next 70 years. The battle between the Copper Kings Clark and Daly is a large chapter in Montana history. To stir the mix, another Copper King, F. Augustus Heinze, fought the dominance of Amalgamated, providing excitement to an already interesting chapter in Montana’s legal history.
The mines brought whole families from every corner of the nation and around the world. They crowded into tiny houses and occupied apartment buildings called flats. The earlier skilled miners were Cornish, but the Irish soon followed, tempted by the prospects of steady pay. They came in droves and soon became the largest ethnic group. Suburbs of Butte, with names like Finntown, Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, Chinatown, Corktown, and Parrot Flat were soon filled with Italians, Croatians, Serbians, Finns, French Canadians, Lebanese, Scandinavians, Chinese, Mexicans, Germans, Austrians, and African-Americans.
Economic exploitation and the dangers of working in the mines led to the labor movement—an important part of Butte’s heritage. The city soon had the tag of the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” Butte’s Miners Union, founded in 1878, became Local No. 1 of the Western Federation of Miners. At the 1906 International Workers of the World founding convention in Chicago, Butte’s delegation was the largest.
In the late 1800s, the mining companies competed for scarce labor. This gave the unions leverage and many successes. But, as the Anaconda Company consolidated operations, the unions lost their leverage and their power. In the early 1900s, worker frustration and company opposition combined to form a violent atmosphere. The Miner’s Union Hall was bombed in 1914, and in 1917 IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched. A fictional account of this incident is told in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.
In 1917, the Speculator Mine fire killed 168 men—to this day the most lives lost in a hard rock mining disaster in American History. Despite the dangers, mining flourished. At an altitude of 5,775 feet above sea level, Butte claimed it was “a mile high and a mile deep.” But like most mining camps, the riches extracted here—more than $22 billion by the 1980s—went to the speculators and investors far away from the mountains of Montana.
1955 saw the abandonment of labor-intensive underground work when the Anaconda Company switched to more cost-effective open-pit mining. The excavation of the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding area changed the face and the skyline of Butte. The population declined and the new method of mining wiped away hundreds of homes, flats, boarding houses, bars, and corner groceries that once proliferated on Butte’s East Side. Whole communities like Meaderville and McQueen vanished. Columbia Gardens was an elegant, old-fashioned amusement park with an elaborate dance pavilion nestled alongside the East Ridge. For generations, it provided fun and amusement to Butte families. It too fell victim to the open-pit mining. Anaconda Mining Company merged with Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) in 1977. In 1985, ARCO’s holdings were purchased by Montana billionaire Dennis Washington.
When you visit uptown Butte and its older sections, much of its history can be seen by looking up. By viewing the ornate architecture, fading signs on the sides of buildings, and the headframes surrounding the area, one can get a small sense of the grandeur this city once knew.