Butte History reports on discoveries made as I and my colleagues research Butte for our historic walking tours, publications, and just for fun.
“This Butte is capriciously decorated with sweet brilliant metallic orgies of color at any time, all times, as if by whims of pagan gods lightly drunk and lightly mad” (Mary MacLane, 1917).
Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.
I’m not from here, but I live here. According to many
locals, I’ll never be from here, and the differential between “native” and
“outsider” is sometimes intense enough to feel. And sometimes there’s no
differentiation at all: there is no one Butte, and no one characterization of
But whether or not I’m from here, I still thrill with wonder
on a subzero night, walking down Park Street past the Mother Lode Theater,
where ice crystals sift down like glittering columns in the narrow spotlights
above the multicolored Masonic symbols. I can imagine (only imagine) what it
was like to have an ore train pass within arm’s length of your house, as I walk
along the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railroad trail, as I capture in the
sweep of one eye the Immaculate Conception Church spire, the Desperation Fan
Tower, and the century-old M on Big Butte. The pigeons still congregate atop
the Desperation as it breathes warm air out from the depths of the Anselmo Mine
which it served.
300 block of North Main (1942): all gone.
Library of Congress.
I walk down North Idaho Street, Mary MacLane’s “surprising
steep Idaho Street hill,” in the footsteps of 3,000 mourners who followed Tom
Manning’s casket from Scanlon’s house, now gone from the 300 block three blocks
from my own home, to the cemetery, honoring his death at the hands of the
Company in the Anaconda Road Massacre a few blocks to the east. Here and there,
until the road crews patch them, trolley tracks emerge through worn asphalt.
They recall summer Thursdays, childrens’ days at Columbia Gardens when kids rode
the trolley for free for a day of wonder and freedom and fun. Trolleys last
rode those rails in 1937, but the streets themselves reek of Butte’s history.
A few cracked and patterned sidewalks still bear the imprint
“City of Butte 1910.” Were these the very pavements that Carrie Nation trod
with her Prohibition fervor that year? Or did Emma Goldman, “the most dangerous
woman in America,” an anarchist arrested in connection with William McKinley’s
assassination, but later released—did Emma Goldman walk here on her way to the
Carpenter’s Union Hall to speak on “the white slave trade” in 1910?
There’s a new building replacing Maguire’s Opera House where
Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin performed, a new building built in 1914. There’s
a new building at the corner of Granite and Main, where Dr. Beal’s Centennial
Hotel, opened on July 4, 1876, once stood. We call that new 1897 building the
Hennessy, and it was headquarters for the Anaconda Company for three-quarters
of a century.
Can you hear men’s voices on North Wyoming Street, where the
Finlander Hall stood? On a hot August night listen carefully, and you might
hear bits of “Solidarity Forever,” echoing down the decades from a similar
August night in 1917 when Frank Little spoke at the Finlander and was dragged
to his death from the boarding house next door. The song’s voices are accented,
out of tune, but unified in their vision. Or go a block north and listen for
the murmur of a thousand tired men pouring down the Anaconda Road at shift
change. Of all the things that Butte has lost, and there are many, the sounds,
the noise, the din of mines, machinery, mules, and the traffic of people in
motion and busy and active is one of the most noticeable. Many are the
old-timers who had no watch, but knew the time from the mine whistles, each
with its own signature sound and direction. Even today, the silent headframes
and the lay of the land make it a challenge to get lost in Butte, at least
geographically: headframes, Highlands, Big Butte, and East Ridge define your position
better than a map. Getting lost in time in Butte—that’s another matter. That’s
pretty easy, for people who are from here, and for people like me, who are not.
Stephens Hotel turret, Park and Montana.
Library of Congress.
Can you smell the noodle parlor aromas in Chinatown? You
might, because one of the three survivors in Chinatown is the Pekin, still in
operation after a century and still in the same family. Especially in China
Alley behind the Pekin tantalizing spices grab your attention—but don’t forget
this alley was also a scene of death, a shootout that took several lives during
the tong wars in 1922. Nothing in Butte is one dimensional.
Can you smell the open sewer that ran through the Cabbage
Patch and the East Side? No, it’s long gone, and there are nice new buildings
straddling its old location east of Arizona. But look around with 1884 eyes and
you’ll see the ditch, a flowing stream for a while, that came out of Dublin
Gulch, provided some water to the Butte Brewery on North Wyoming, then
continued south to Silver Bow Creek. All filled and paved and gone now—unlike
the gulch that came south from the Original Mine, east of the Court House,
through the heart of town. That one is paved over, but not gone: the 10-foot-high
1884 culvert that channeled the flow to the subsurface still serves Butte, and
was under repair in 2012.
A hundred stables dotted central Uptown Butte in 1884. No
smells there, of course.
Can you smell the arsenical fumes that came from open fires,
smelters for Butte’s first ores? No, but you may find arsenic in your yard or
in your attic. Don’t eat the dirt. Bladder cancer killed my dog, and between
them two veterinarians knew of seven cases of canine bladder cancer, all from
On any Uptown corner, be prepared to be jostled by ghosts in
their thousands. Watch out for the ladies in their tight bodices, come to watch
the million-dollar-fire on Park Street in 1905, or the crowd that gathered for
a similar fire a block west on Park Street in 1972. Or enjoy the camaraderie of
ghostly folks out and about, taking care of business, shopping for anything,
everything that money could buy, anywhere in the United States—Butte had it.
High-end Everitt cars? Yes, in 1910, when it “costs but $1,900” from Tom
Angell’s dealership at 10 North Wyoming. I can see folks taking that test drive
down Wyoming to Park, certainly turning right or left since another block or
two would take them into the red-light district. But even a well-paid miner
earning $3.50 a day probably saw owning the Everitt as a pipe dream.
Can you taste the food of thirty nations? Grapefruit in
winter? Certainly, from any of a dozen different grocers even in the 1890s. Italian
specialties from Savin Lisa’s stores on East Park; solid meat and potatoes in
Irish boarding houses, from the Florence Hotel’s dining room that seated 400 to
Mary Buckley’s house in Corktown where 30 men gathered to a meal; Cornish
pasties in a Walkerville miner’s lunch bucket, and tamales, chop suey, Greek
mixtures, and homemade – take your pick.
Butte accosts the senses, all of them. Feel the winter wind cut
down an alley, or a moist spring breeze filled with promise, even though there
may be snow on the ground in June or July. Those winds blow on to Ireland and
Cornwall and Lebanon and China and your families left behind. Does that make it
easier to work with the death and dirt of the mines? There’s something this
outsider can’t really know.
No, I’m not from here, but Butte is in my blood and brains,
and it will never go away.