Butte was established in 1869 as a mining town to support placer mining in Silver Bow Creek.
Miners started sinking prospect holes looking for more gold but found silver instead.
The arrival of the Union Pacific in Utah in 1874 allowed for cost-effective shipment of supplies,
equipment, and ore to and from Butte, and hard rock mining started in earnest. One of the first men
to profit from this development was William A. Clark. Marcus Daly came to town in 1876, noticed a lot of
copper in the silver ore veins, and bought the Anaconda prospect. W.A. Clark noticed too, as did newcomer
Augustus Heinze. Thus started the intense and brutal "Copper King War" between the three for control
of Butte's mining wealth. Butte became the largest industrial city in Montana, and one of the largest
copper boomtowns in the West. "The Richest Hill on Earth", as Butte is affectionately known, produced
tens of billions of dollars in copper, gold, and silver over the years.
Butte is no longer the richest hill on earth. The ore has been depleted and mines shut down. The Berkley Pit is currently the site of one of the largest superfund projects in the country and there is a lot of finger pointing about who will take responsibilty and how and when it will be cleaned up. In spite of all this Butte is still a unique and fascinating place that played an important role in the development of our country. Many Butte residents still retain the close-knit bond of the old hard rock mining days. So, as they say in Butte, tap'er light.
I have been to Butte twice, once briefly in August of 2018, and again for a 3 day stay in August of 2021. I have tried to present several aspects of its rich mining history in this photo-essay. We'll tour around the Uptown historic district, drive up the hill to gawk at the headframes, and visit the Mineral Museum and World Museum of Mining to get a better understanding of Butte's hard rock mining days.
National Historic Landmark District
The Butte National Historic Landmark District is one of the largest in the U.S., containing some 6000 historic buildings dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Naturally I wanted to photograph all 6000, but ended up with only 60 or so. The district is known locally as Uptown Butte.
I've included some representative buildings in this section, but you can see lots more by clicking on the slideshow link (it's set up kind of like a virtual walking tour).
Click here to view lots of historic, and not so historic, buildings as a slideshow. May take several seconds to load and run.
The 6-story Hennessy Building, designed by Frederick Kees, housed
Daniel Hennessy's mercantile business in what became Montana's first and most elegant department store.
The Hirbour Tower was the first skyscraper built in Montana. An internal frame of steel girders supported its 8 stories (plus a basement).
The Metals Bank building (8 story building in photo) was designed by architect Cass Gilbert in 1906 for the State Savings Bank. In 1920 State Bank was reorganized as the Metals Bank and Trust Company. The bank left the building in the 1970s, and starting in 2006 the bulding was renovated to include a restaurant, galleries, salon, coffee shoppe, residential condos and office suites.
The legendary M&M saloon and eatery opened in 1890 and was named for the initials of its first 2 owners, Sam Martin and William F. Mosby. During Prohibition the M&M officially became a cigar store (euphemism for speakeasy). Sadly the bar was destroyed by fire on May 7, 2021, 3 months before my second visit to Butte. The only thing saved was its spectacular neon sign. Rumor has it that the owners are looking to rebuild.
Old Lexington Gardens and Stamp Mill
Old Lexington Gardens is a small park located at the corner of Granite and Arizona Streets, one block from the historic Finlen Hotel. The gardens has a replica of a floral butterfly that was first planted in Columbia Gardens in 1899. The Columbia Gardens was an amusement park built by W.A. Clark in 1899, and destroyed in 1973 by the expansion of open pit mining. The land on which Old Lexington Gardens is located was part of one of the first patented mine claims, the Baltic Mine claim (8/7/1881). Butte's first stamp mill and ore smelter were located at this site. The wooden Silversmith headframe is similar to the old Baltic Mine headframe.
The Mineral Museum is located on the Montana Tech campus in Butte. The museum's displays feature about 1000 rocks, minerals, meteorites, and fossils. There are also exhibits on Montana's geology, earthquake activity, and local mining activity. There is a nice gift shop. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome.
Click to visit the Mineral Museum
World Museum of Mining
The World Museum of Mining is located just south of the Mineral Museum on the site of the inactive Orphan Girl mine. The Orphan Girl mine tour is the premier attraction, but there is also a very nice reproduction of an old mining town, Hell Roarin' Gulch, and dozens of exhibits in the mine yard. The main museum building features a gift shop, rock and mineral room, and various exhibits.
Click to visit the World Museum of Mining
The Mines of Butte
Mining reached its zenith in Butte in 1917 with 102 operating mines. Today there is only one active mine remaining, the Continental Pit. There are still 14 steel headframes (gallows frames) dotting the landscape in the Uptown District, Centerville, and Walkerville. These iconic symbols of Butte range in height from 100 to 200 feet tall.
Granite Mountain Memorial
A fire broke out in the Granite Mountain Mine mine on June 8, 1917. It quickly spread through a maze of tunnels including the connected Speculator Mine, carrying flames, smoke, and poisonous gas with it. When the fire was finally extinguished, 168 miner's lives had been lost. The Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire remains the worst hard rock mining disaster in history. The Granite Mountain Memorial is dedicated to those who died in that accident.
Source material: Wikipedia, Western Mining History website, and Mining History Association website.
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