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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A picture tells a story

Charles Roscoe Savage photo of Butte circa September 1881. Mountain View Church at left; Timber Butte in right distance; Idaho Street heading down the hill along the right side.

By Richard I. Gibson

Click on images below to enlarge.

A picture tells a story, if only we can read it.

Recently on Facebook, Building in the Past, a wonderful page that shares great historic imagery from all over, shared a photo of early Butte that I had never seen, copied at the top of this post. Now, of course I haven’t seen every historic photo of Butte – but I’ve seen all the ones that are commonly reproduced, and so has my colleague, Nicole von Gaza-Reavis. She had not seen this one either, so we began a Facebook discussion of the photo, its subjects and its timing.

The main points of the photo are immediately evident to those who study historic Butte seriously. The church at left is Mountain View (the original church, built circa 1877 and replaced by the present one in 1899) at Quartz and Montana. That’s Timber Butte in the distance, and the dirt street heading downhill on the right of the photo is Idaho Street.

After that, identifying details takes a little more sleuthing.

Down Idaho Street, on the left (east) side of the street, the steep-roofed building is the original Presbyterian Church at the corner of Idaho and Broadway, replaced by the present building in 1896 (where the Covellite Theater is located). Nicole and I determined that you can see the Jacobs House at Granite and Montana – but only its roof, partly hidden among other roofs in the left portion of the photo. You can get a suggestion of a vacant lot across (left) from the Jacobs House – that’s where the original county court house would go up in 1884, a few years after this photo was made. The Jacobs House is probably the only building in this photo that still stands today.

Which leads us to the question of the timing. The original source is the Charles Roscoe Savage photograph collection, digitized by Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library. Savage worked as a photographer for various railroads and of course did additional photography as well. The original source gives the date as ca. 1880.

Caplice Block was at Park and Montana (SW corner)
When you get into the photo and keep track of where the streets are located – a challenge in places, because of the foreshortening in the view – you can recognize the Caplice Block as the largest single building in the photo. It’s just to the right of center in the middle distance, and it was located on the southwest corner of Park and Montana Streets. Its roof is not completed in this photo – the top was an ornate French Second Empire style, similar to today’s Finlen Hotel. With a Butte Miner newspaper article from May 14, 1882 that reported on the completion of the Caplice Block (except for some painting), I speculated that the photo would have been a few months prior to that May 1882 date. If you look at the shadows in the photo, it is clear that the photo was made late in the day – and the shadows are pretty close to east-west in orientation. In Butte, that only happens around the times of the equinoxes – March and September. So I concluded that the photo probably was made in March, 1882.

Caplice Block at right. Note 7 windows (as in photo above)
and completed Second Empire roof.
But Larry Hoffman pointed out the lack of snow anywhere – especially on the mountains, and argued for fall of 1881. The first railroad (Utah & Northern) arrived in Butte December 21, 1881, so if Savage was riding the train, he came after that. But there is no reason to think that he wasn’t here in Butte, perhaps scouting things for the coming railway, before the line was completed. So back to the research.

It turned out that while the Caplice Block was indeed “completed” in May 1882, it was definitely being used the previous fall and winter. A news report on September 1, 1881, said that its walls were “looming up in magnificent proportions” and it was at least partially occupied before Thanksgiving 1881. So, new conclusion: the photo probably dates to the Autumnal Equinox, September 1881. That fits better with all the knowns we have. We may figure out other lines of reasoning, of course, that may deny this conclusion, or give it more support. That’s how this process works, at least this far back when there is really very little clear information about Butte. Only in 1884 and later, when we have Sanborn maps, city directories, and the Bird’s-Eye View, can we really make definitive statements about most buildings. Even then, things can be murky and subject to interpretation.

Charles Roscoe Savage was a prolific photographer, best known for his pictures of the driving of the “golden spike” connecting the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. He was English and became a Mormon at age 14, in 1846. When he emigrated to the United States at age 23, he eventually settled and made his studio in Salt Lake City. Many of his photographs were lost in a studio fire in 1883, which may explain why (so far as we know) there are only two extant from his visit to Butte in (we now surmise) 1881.

Bird's-Eye View (1884)
Circled house is the one across from
Mountain View Church (#2 here),
same as the house across Quartz in the photo above
(to right of church in photo)
Beyond the specific buildings mentioned above, this photo provides a wealth of information about early Butte. The sharpness of the photo is probably a result of its being an albumen print, a method that used egg whites (albumen) and was printed as a direct exposure, so there was no photo developing in the modern sense. That method gives the outstandingly fine grain seen in this photo, but I’m not entirely certain that that is the nature of this image.

This photo bears out the idea that the 1884 Bird’s-Eye View is an almost photographic rendering of the way Butte looked in 1884. Mountain View Church is faithfully drawn, and even the house across the street from it has the exact roofline shown in the photo above.

The second Butte photo in the BYU Charles Roscoe Savage collection is of Walkerville. That’ll be the subject of a future post.

Thanks to Nicole von Gaza-Reavis, Larry Hoffman, and everyone who contributed to the multiple Facebook discussions of this photograph, and to Paul Charron (Building in the Past) for the original posting.


  1. Very interesting article- I am so pleased that Building in the Past posted this- when I saw it, I knew I had never seen it before (not all that surprising) but wanted to share it with the Butte group. I was hoping that you had more information or could find more information. You have indeed. Thanks so much for filling in the back story so well.

    1. Thanks! It was great fun figuring it out!

  2. It appears that St John's Episcopal church is half built. That was begun in June of 1881 and the first service was held in November 1881. I'd say that securely dates this photo to sometime in the fall of 1881.