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Monday, June 15, 2009

Butte, America

I spent Wednesday night, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Butte, Montana; often referred to by the locals as Butte, America, for its historic mix of ethnicities. At one point Butte was the largest city north of Denver or Salt Lake, between Minneapolis and Seattle (bigger than Spokane). Although it topped out at probably 100,000 inhabitants, the census numbers couldn’t properly count everyone in 1910 and 1920 because so much of Butte’s population was transient.

Butte’s claim to fame comes from its copper mining history, which is the basis for its National Historic Landmark status, the largest one in the United States. The mining past also lead to butte being another “largest”, that is, one of the largest Superfund sites in the USA. Contamination from the 19th and early 20th century copper mining has run down the hill, down Silver Bow Creek, and into the Clark Fork River, where it pooled behind the Milltown Dam from 1910 until just last year. Milltown Dam, on the Clark Fork River near Missoula, Montana, from the Historic American Buildings Survey website.

As copper mining became less profitable, Butte began a slow decline as early as the 1920’s, although the Anaconda Copper Company continued to run the city, and really the state, from the sixth floor of the Hennessey Building trough much of the 20th century. The grim reaper knocked on Butte’s door when ARCO shut down all the Butte mines, except for the ever yawning Berkley Pit, in the early 1980’s. (The Hennessey Building, whose 6th floor offices are infamous for their influence in state and national politics)

Butte now, is a town of about 30,000 people, and struggles to find a new identify for itself. The inhabitants have a wealth of housing and commercial building stock, yet no money to repair, restore or rehab the buildings. Some of the structures we toured last week had been boarded up until very recently. Whole floors of downtown buildings, abandoned in the 1930’s. It’s amazing to walk around in.

I left Butte on Saturday with a new perspective on both Butte, and Bozeman. Until recently, maybe as recently as 1995, Butte really was a bigger and more advanced city than Bozeman. Butte really was a CITY, with numerous “skyscrapers” (please remember that in Montana, any building over four stories is tall), a trolley system, multiple schools, parochial schools, active industry, a dense, and large commercial district. Bozeman was a cow town in comparison.

I’m still trying to process everything I saw in Butte, but in the mean time, I can say with certainty that I will go back, and probably stop in occasionally on my way though . I have a crush on Butte, America.

The Dumas Brothel

Interpretation of Butte's Red Light District. See the other black shilloutes in the background, indicating "johns", "madams", and police officers? There are also red lights that come on in the parking lot at night.
The Mai Wah society building, one of the last remnants of Butte's Chinatown area. From the "Cheater Story" window of Mai Wah.

The round radiator in the second floor of a building. The staircase to the second floor was removed in the 1930's, and the lawyers offices and tax asessment offices moved. The second floor was sealed, and inaccessible until recently. The second and thrid floors of this building were also abandoned in the mid 1930's. It was built as first floor retail, with second and third floor hotel rooms. The current owner has put a new roof on the building and is looking to further stabilize it. And people in Bozeman say the Armory is in bad shape?

The main floor of the building is a great antique shop. I could have spent a lot of money, but instead spent $18 on fun antique paste earrings for me and a Olympia Beer opener for DJ, whose grandpa once worked at the Oly Beer Co.

The Steward Mine

Engine Room of the Steward Mine.Looking out the Engine Room door of the Steward Mine, towards the headframe.

Houses directly across the street from the Steward Mine.

The O'Rourke Building, currently for sale for $116,000. Anyone want to go in on it with me?

With 300 photos of this conference, I'm beginning to feel like I didn't take enough photos...

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