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.



Friday, May 25, 2012

The Silver King Lode

Cherokee Park at upper right
Click any image to enlarge

By Richard I. Gibson

I’ve known that my 1898 house is set into mine waste since nearly the day I moved in, when I saw mica and pyrite on the basement floor. It was sloughing off the exposed wall beneath the stairs, where angular pyrite-bearing granite chunks and loose fine material were clearly visible. It wasn’t long before I learned that Uptown Butte’s parks mark old mine sites, but it was a good while before I discovered Sanborn maps and found that the park just north of my house, Cherokee Park (locals call it Cheese Park, but that’s another story), is the site of the Silver King Mine.

The black layer is probably decomposed wood
Last week, a hole opened up in the street maybe 40 feet from the northwest corner of my garage. It was only about a foot across, but the open drop into it was close to six feet deep. After numerous people came to look into it and paint variously colored marks on the pavement, on Tuesday a Butte-Silver Bow Public Works Department crew arrived to excavate the hole.

Soon the one-foot hole was 15 feet long and nearly as deep. Environmental Manager Tom Malloy pointed out the layers of fill – possibly some asphalt in the shallower zones, but mostly obvious mine waste like that in my basement, plus mixed coarse soil and rocks. We speculated that one black zone in the excavation wall, maybe three feet down, was coal or slag or charcoal. Eventually the excavator revealed a small hole at the bottom, presumably the sump taking water through the material, ultimately allowing for the collapse that made the original hole in the pavement up top.

Probably bedrock at left and
below debris (with brick) at right
Tom organized a water test; 1,000 gallons of water just went down, down, down. As he played water off the sides, I’m convinced he revealed at least three sides of an older hole made of solid (relatively solid) granite. Tom and I both think they were down to some original man-made cutting associated with the mine.

Close to my house!
The Silver King Claim extends from about the north side of Quartz Street to Copper in the west, and to the alley between Quartz and Copper in the east (it narrows eastward). On the west its boundary is about half way between Crystal and Clark, and on the east its limit lies between Idaho and Montana. My house on Crystal, north of the jog in Quartz, sits on the intersection of the Silver King, Plymouth, and Morning Sun claims. That jog in Quartz Street and the angling front yards of homes in the 600 block reflect the northern boundary of the Plymouth claim.

My lot is the red square
There were two Silver King mines and hoist works. Based on the Sanborns—and given the gaps in the years, it’s challenging to be certain, so I’m inferring from other evidence, such as the mine waste in my 1898 basement—I think the western shafts (where Cherokee Park is today) were in operation from about 1895 until about 1908. They were “not in operation Jan. 1910” on the 1914 map. The eastern mine was located at 210 West Quartz, between two houses (one still standing, at 208), directly north across the alley from the Copper King Mansion. That operation began after 1900 and worked until about 1915 (apparently working in 1914, but idle in 1916). There are tantalizing pasted-on updates in the physical 1914 Sanborn map (at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives) that suggest another hoist beneath the vacant lot at 521-527 West Quartz (a shaft was definitely there) – you can almost see through the pasted-on layers to older structures. I think the 1914 Sanborn is an update of a 1907 map set, but I’m not certain.

Red dots: modern road alongside Cherokee Park.
Blue oval: the excavation. 1914 Sanborn map.
At Cherokee Park north of my house, the operation had a main shaft in the southwestern part of what is now the park in 1900, with two boilers for generating steam and a 25-foot iron chimney. There was a secondary gallows frame and shaft, due north of my house about the width of my house away, along the south edge of the park or even under the street there today. The secondary headframe was connected to the main mine operation by two tramways, one to the northwest (about where the present-day street sits) to the western dump, and another to the north to dumps near the northern edge of the park along Copper Street. I think the relatively steep berm west of Cherokee Park is basically the Silver King mine dump.

House alignment on W. Quartz reflects
edge of Plymouth Claim
The mine complex was going strong in 1905 when Walter Harvey Weed, author of the 1912 US Geological Survey Professional Paper on Butte, visited. He apparently saw the 250-foot level, where he examined the Silver King vein, “remarkable for its richness and for the amount of gold which it carries.” He reported ore as high as 333 ounces of silver per ton and $294 in gold, also remarkable in that the metals were highly disseminated in what looked like ordinary decomposed granite, rather than concentrated in the quartz vein. Weed also noted a subsidiary vein branching to the west, a “very zincky vein.” (Note that the Anselmo, not far west of here, produced a lot of zinc.) Weed reported that “the yield of the Silver King vein has been rather phenomenal; and there was probably something like $150,000 in ore in sight at the time of visit (1905).”

Coppery shows in a rock from the dig
The vein dips to the south according to Weed, which may explain why the eastern Silver King mine shaft, at 210 West Quartz, was located off the claim itself. The hoist building there was in the lot near Quartz Street, but the gallows frame was nearer the alley between it and the Mansion. The dumps surrounded the headframe there.

Assuming that the Sanborn map is correct, the Cherokee Park Silver King mine operation ended at least 102 years ago, before 1910. The material in the excavation hole included a few bricks along with big loose rocks, all about 10 feet down; the suggestion is strong that there was a lot of filling going on even that long ago. I have not figured out when the curving extension of Crystal Street, along the southwestern edge of Cherokee Park, was installed. It does not show on the 1951 Sanborn map, while the house on the end of Crystal (in the middle of the street; address 535, and gone today) is still there together with the secondary headframe north of my house (301), so this area might have still been mine dumps as late as the 1950s.

LOTS of cement!
After pouring water into the hole, showing that it simply flowed on underground somewhere, the county crew plugged that deep hole with about 10 cubic yards of concrete, then filled in the rest of the excavation. Short of new pavement on the surface, it was good as new within hours, but what it hides below led me to this enjoyable investigation. If these electrons survive, maybe the next time someone has to excavate there (5? 25? 50? years from now?) they’ll have some sense of what to expect.

Funding for the B-SB Shaft Failure and Subsidence Mitigation Program is courtesy of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), Conservation and Resource Development Division, Resource Development Bureau, RIT Grant. Anywhere on the Butte Hill, if you see a suspicious hole in the ground, or even a curious depression, or an intriguing ground slump, the very first thing you should do, is to take three steps backward. Then call for assistance. BSB Planning Dept., Tom Malloy, 497-6257 or 490-4286.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Myron Brinig

by Richard I. Gibson

Jewish, gay, and of Romanian ancestry, author Myron Brinig was born in Minneapolis in 1896 but spent his childhood in Butte (1897-1914). The Brinigs lived at 814 West Granite, a little blue miner’s cottage that survives today, and Myron’s father Maurice (known as Moses), a Butte dry goods merchant, gave Myron his model for Singermann, one of the main characters in his novels.

The Sisters, set in part in Butte fictionalized as Silver Bow, Montana, became a 1938 feature film starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. But Brinig’s best characterization of Butte is Wide Open Town, first published in 1931. That book among others led critics to call Brinig one of the leading young writers in America in the 1930s.

Three novels recount Butte life in the 1910s to 1930s: Richard K. O’Malley’s Mile High, Mile Deep, Ivan Doig’s Work Song, and Brinig’s Wide Open Town. While all three are interesting and entertaining portrayals of Butte, my favorite is Wide Open Town, set about 1910. Virtually all of the action takes place in Uptown Butte, and the main characters walk all over – just as I do. I especially relate to Irish immigrant Roddy Cornett, a spieler, who makes his living as a walking, vocal advertisement calling out shopkeepers’ deals on the streets. His nephew John Donnelly falls in love with Zola, a prostitute; one of Brinig’s most lyrical passages describes their outing on Big Butte. “The sun was swimming down the sky into the comfortable, golden placidities of the afternoon. The east was mellowing; the west more fiery. Where does the sun go when it leaves off this sky? Perhaps in Ireland it is morning now, or deep night…”

The New York Times reviewed Wide Open Town in 1931 thus: “In recreating life in [Butte] during the heyday of miners and prostitutes and saloons, Mr. Brinig writes with the throttle wide open.” In the introduction to the 1993 Sweetgrass Books edition, Earl Ganz quotes Montana historian and author H.G. Merriam describing Brining: “He's not really a Montana writer. He's a Butte writer. That's different.”

Brinig spent most of his life in the artist colony of Taos, New Mexico, and New York City, where he died in 1991.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Store Beautiful

Photo courtesy John McKee.
By Richard I. Gibson

Symons’ first store opened October 14, 1897, at 54 West Park, but within a year they expanded to the York Block (68-72 West Park) and in 1899 Symons purchased the Maule Block a bit further west, multiplying their total area by six times, to 50,000 sq ft.

All of that was destroyed by the great fire of September 24, 1905, but the Phoenix Block rose from the ashes. By opening day December 5, 1906, the Phoenix held the much expanded Symons Department Store where 300 employees worked in 92,000 square feet of store. Thirty-three more years took a toll, and in 1938-39 a major renovation resulted in the grand re-opening of Symons on May 6, 1939—a $200,000 project created “the store beautiful,” as the Montana Standard called it.

Among many other things, you could have purchased a hard-bound copy of Gone With The Wind for $1.18 (marked down from the usual $3.00), anticipating the December 1939 movie release. They had 1,000 pairs of shoes at $1.49 each, ironing boards for 89¢ and sweaters for 49¢. Their fur department boasted the hiring of Miss Lula Brewer, fur designer and buyer back in Butte after nine years in high-class New York City. Furs with “clever little collar or collarless necklines display a new smartness,” for the best-dressed ladies of 1939.

Valuable furs were kept in a vault under the sidewalk on the Galena Street side of the store. John McKee’s photo here is of the surviving vault door at the sub-basement level. The door probably dates to the 1939 renovation, although the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Company was in business under that name from 1892 to 1959. The vault behind this door was cedar-lined and contained untold thousands of dollars worth of furs over its lifetime.

The upper floors of the southern part of the building (facing Galena) were removed about 1965.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Murder at the Maule Block


By Richard I. Gibson

On February 6, 1903, Butte residents opened their Anaconda Standard to read a lavishly illustrated report of a lurid murder. The Standard’s five-column front-page story began, “One woman's infidelity to her husband, the jealous hatred of another married woman for the unfaithful one and the rage of a wronged husband seeking to avenge the destruction of his domestic felicity are the three principal factors in one of the most tragic murders Butte has known for a long time.”

35-year-old Emery Chevrier owned and operated a popular barber shop at 90 East Park on the southwest corner with Wyoming—and he was evidently quite the ladies’ man. In February 1903, at least three women—all married—were the objects of his affections. Mrs. Brooks was the latest, but all three had met Chevrier at a dance at the Scandia Hall on South Main the night of February 5. Chevrier and the three women walked up Main Street after the dance and dined together at the Chesapeake Restaurant on West Park at about 2:30 a.m. Chevrier and Bertha Brooks went to his room at the Maule Block and the other women left. It appears that one of them, Mrs. John O’Reilly, mother of four, was jealous of Mrs. Brooks, and went to the Casino Theater on Galena Street where Walter Brooks worked as a bartender. She informed him of his wife’s behavior and brought him to the Maule Block where Brooks burst into Chevrier’s room, found Chevrier with his wife, and shot him once. The victim fled but Brooks shot him a second time on the stairway landing, where he died.

Brooks admitted the shooting but pleaded self-defense, an accidental discharge of the gun during a struggle. The women were also arrested but were released over the next few days. The trial in March 1903 led to Brooks’ conviction for manslaughter after the jury deliberated for 21 hours.

The site of the murder, the Maule Block, was a three-story lodging house at 78-80 West Park. Symons Department Store owned the building and occupied the first floor, and a tin shop opened on the alley behind #78. Furnished rooms filled the upper floors. The Maule was erected about 1889 to replace the Warfield & Gwin Livery and Feed Stable that burned in 1888. Academy Street (later Dakota) was pushed through from Park to Galena after 1891, leaving two one-story stores at the corner west of the Maule and across from the Renhsaw Hall (Terminal Meat Market). The Maule had paired half-round turrets on the bay-fronted Park Street façade decorated with a two-foot parapet above the cornice. A sidewalk-level entrance in the middle led to the rooms upstairs, and a secondary external stair stood on the west side. The building was destroyed in a huge fire September 24, 1905; when Symons rebuilt in 1906, the new building was called the Phoenix Block which still stands today on the site of the Maule, York, and other buildings.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Carpenters' Union Hall in jeopardy

 By Richard I. Gibson

Update, January 29, 2013: At a settlement conference before a federal judge, the local Carpenters Union Hall, Inc. and the regional union council agreed that the Carpenters Union Hall Inc. is the rightful owner of the building, will retain possession, and the deed will go to them once the local judge reviews the terms of the federal ruling. This is good news; it was the competing regional council that claimed to own it and wanted to demolish it.  Montana Standard article.

While molten rock was solidifying to become the Butte granite 78 million years ago, sandy rivers flowing near what is now Columbus, Montana, watered dinosaurs and primitive mammals. And some of those river sands found their way to Butte — with a little help from an Italian-born quarryman.

Brick and granite dominate Butte's construction materials, but a few other natural stones are present as well. The entry arches and window sill courses at the 1906 Carpenters' Union Hall, 156 W. Granite St., are made of gray Montana sandstone, quarried near Columbus between 1890 and 1910.
From architect's plans, June 17, 1906. Click to enlarge.

Carved decorative vertical lines dominate the rock, but they do not conceal the original cross-bedding—angular sub-horizontal curving trends in the fine-grained sandstone layers that reflect the currents in those 78-million-year-old rivers. The quarry just north of Columbus also provided the stone for much of the Montana State Capitol in Helena, and it can be found on the Silver Bow County Court House and other buildings. Michael Jacobs (born Jacobucci) came to Montana from Italy as a stone carver and mason, and eventually became a manager at the quarry around 1901. Jacobs became rich on this popular sandstone, finishing his 3,500-square-foot mansion in Columbus about 1907 and serving as the town's mayor in 1913-14.

The Anaconda Standard for June 17, 1906, headlined the sketch included here “Carpenters’ Union Hall to be Model.” The building was expected to be a notable addition to the central part of the city, with rooms specially designed as meeting halls for various organizations. “Careful attention has been given in the designing to heating and ventilation, and the structure will be a model in this respect.”

The value of the hall was evident within a few years. A previous blog post reported on Emma Goldman’s visit to Butte in 1910, when she spoke at the Carpenters’ Union Hall. Now, in 2012, the building is threatened with demolition in a squabble between the corporation that owns the building and the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters from Seattle that claims to own it. At a court hearing May 4, 2012, the parties decided on a plan for paying bills, but the broader question of ownership remains unsettled and will likely go to a trial later this year. The local folks want to re-roof the building to save it; the Seattle union seems to prefer to let it decay to the point that demolition becomes the only option. In my opinion—and I’m not a party to this case—that sounds to me like aggravated demolition by neglect, something that is illegal in Butte. It will be interesting to see if the city-county is willing or able to enforce its own historic preservation law. 

The same June 17, 1906, newspaper touted other elements of Butte’s 1906 building boom: plans for the new State Savings Bank (Metals Bank) were being reviewed, while work on the Symons Store (Phoenix Block), Leonard Hotel, Public Library, Marshall Flats (Copper at Montana), and a 16-room flat on West Galena near Columbia (Clark St. today) were all progressing favorably. The Napton was also built that year. The lot at Granite and Alaska, where the Silver Bow Club was about to be erected, was being cleared. The large house that stood on that corner had been cut in half with the plan of moving it to South Idaho Street; progress was slow, and it took a week to get the front half just two blocks west to Idaho, disrupting the trolley system, but “the contractor is a nervy man and he seems determined to get the building moved to its new location at any cost.”

Note: the first part of this post was previously published in an article I wrote for the Montana Standard in 2008.