Butte’s history is rich and varied, so much so that dozens of books recount its remarkable story. This is my basic overview of the Richest Hill on Earth. It approximates the introductory spiel I give to Old Butte Historical Adventures walking tour folks and to trolley riders.
Although explorers had passed through Summit Valley where Butte stands today as early as 1856, Butte’s history really begins in 1864. Prospectors were branching out from Montana’s first gold rush that began in Bannack and Virginia City, about 100 miles south of Butte, in 1862. Scouring every gulch in western Montana, they did find gold in Silver Bow Creek near the present-day Interstate, and they went up on the hill where they found rock outcrops bearing gold. This was enough to put Butte on the map as a boom town in the 1860s, with at least 500, and maybe as many as 1500 people.
The problem was, the easy-to-find gold played out rather quickly, and by 1874, Butte’s population was down to 61 (some sources say 241; in any event, the town was nearly gone) scrabbling miners, many of them Chinese. The good news from Butte’s point of view is that by the next year, 1875, some of the prospectors had returned, and this time they analyzed the rocks, finding some hidden gold, a surprising amount of hidden silver, and an unbelievable amount of hidden copper—which no one cared about. You made pennies out of copper and little else.
Although gold drew the prospectors, it was silver discoveries beginning in 1875 that kept them here, and it was copper that ultimately made them rich.
Butte needed one more year: in 1876, the telephone was invented, followed in 1879 by the electric light. Western Union had established the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, but the telephone and electric light were the real drivers behind copper consumption, beginning in the late 1870s. Such wonderful new devices demanded copper for transmission wires, and Butte was at the right place at the right time, holding more copper than anywhere known on earth. The boom was on.
Butte went from the handful of residents in 1874 to 3,363 in the 1880 census, about 23,000 by 1890, and on to a peak of close to 100,000 in 1917. In 1917, Butte was the largest city in the whole vast area from Minneapolis to Denver to Salt Lake City to Spokane, and not just the largest, but the richest as well, thanks to the wealth coming from beneath the earth. Everyone was coming to Butte: Immigrants by the thousand, from all over the world. Businessmen, entrepreneurs, opportunists, ladies of the evening, and the entertainers of the day all came to Butte. Stars from Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin to Sarah Bernhardt and Clark Gable all played in Butte. They came because there was a large population with a lot of money.
Ultimately, Butte’s miners created more than 10,000 miles of underground passages. On the way they also created some of the first and most powerful labor unions in America, making for momentous, dramatic, and internationally important history. See George Everett’s When Toil Meant Trouble for a good overview of this aspect of Butte.
By 1955, the cost of underground mining was becoming a factor in the Anaconda Company’s economics. Not to mention the fact that it was dangerous—more than 2,300 men died in a century of underground mining here. So beginning that year, the Berkeley Pit proceeded to “take it all,” creating a huge hole in the ground that was a more economic way of getting the rock in the box. When it shut down in 1982 due to international economic factors (mostly, Chile coming to the fore as the world’s 600-pound gorilla of copper production, and associated low copper prices), the Berkeley Pit was a mile and a half wide, more than a mile across, and 1800 feet deep. But when you look across the Pit at the viewing stand, you only see about 800 feet of rock on the high wall; the water is more than 1000 feet deep. For the full story of the water’s rise and the huge environmental problems and solutions related to it, visit Pitwatch.
Butte Voices, Mary Murphy’s Mining Cultures, David Emmons’ The Butte Irish, and my Ethnic Map of Butte.
So was it all worth it? Worth 10,000 miles of tunnels, 2,300 deaths, destruction of ethnic neighborhoods, and an environmental catastrophe that extends 120 miles down the Clark Fork River to Missoula? Well, it is entirely correct to say that Butte’s copper electrified the nation. From the 1880s to the 1920s, Butte was the single largest producer of copper, not just in the U.S., but in the world. From about 1905 to 1917, Butte produced between a quarter and a third of all the copper on earth.
There are even possible beneficial organisms living in the Berkeley Pit water and no where else on earth, organisms that show potential against some kinds of cancer.
After World War I, Butte began its long decline to the present, with about 33,000 people in 2012. The population has been about stable since the 1990 census, ending the ongoing fall from the peak in 1917. Today there is one mine in operation, Montana Resources’ Continental Pit east of the Berkeley Pit, with about 350 employees. The main product remains copper, with molybdenum an important by-product.
So what about Butte’s claim to being the Richest Hill On Earth? In the U.S. there is no question; the US Geological Survey has calculated the value of the big mineral districts and Butte, going away, is the most valuable. In the world it is harder to say, because we don’t know the value from the Incas, the Aztecs, or the Roman Empire, but for one little mineral district, only about five square miles on the surface, Butte probably is the most valuable anywhere on the planet.
And you know what, if someone proves that they’re worth more, guess what: We are not going to change our nickname. Butte’s richness is much more than its minerals, and extends to its internationally important labor history, incredible ethnic history, and an astounding architectural heritage of about 4,000 contributing properties, part of the largest National Historic Landmark in the United States.
For a more detailed timeline, visit Chris Fisk’s lesson plan (PDF, scroll down to page 5).
Following is the bibliography from my book, Lost Butte, Montana, with additions :
Astle, John. Only in Butte: Stories Off the Hill. Butte, MT: Holt Publishing Group, 2004.
Barry, Stacie. Coming to the Surface: The Environment, Health, and Culture in Butte, Montana, 1950-2010. Missoula, MT: Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Montana, 2012.
Baumler, Ellen. Spirit Tailings. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.
Brinig, Myron. Wide Open Town. Helena, MT: Sweetgrass Books, 1993 [original 1931].
Butteopia.com. Butteopia. Silver Street Group Ltd., 2006.
Byrnes, Mike. The Mules, the Mines, and the Miners. Butte, MT: Old Butte Publishing, 2004.
Calvert, Jerry W. The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895-1920. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 1988.
Crain, Ellen, and Whitney, Lee. Images of America: Butte. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Dean, Patty, ed. Coming Home: Butte and Anaconda, Montana. Drumlummon Views, vol. 3, no. 1. Helena, MT: Drumlummon Institute and Montana Preservation Alliance, 2009.
DeHaas, John N. Jr. Historic Uptown Butte. Bozeman, MT: Privately published, 1977.
Doig, Ivan. Work Song: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010.
Duaime, T.E., Kennelly, P.J., Thale, P.R. Butte, Montana: Richest Hill on Earth, 100 years of underground mining. Butte, MT: Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology map, 2004.
Emmons, David M. The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Everett, George. Butte Trivia. Helena, MT: Riverbend Publishing, 2007.
Everett, George. The Butte Chinese. Butte, MT: Mai Wah Society. ca. 1998.
Finn, Janet L., and Crain, Ellen. Motherlode. Livingston, MT: Clark City Press, 2005.
Finn, Janet. Mining Childhood: Growing up in Butte, Montana, 1900-1960. Montana Historical Society Press, 2012.
Freeman, Harry C. A Brief History of Butte, Montana. Chicago, IL: Henry O. Shepard Company, 1900.
Gibson, Richard I., and Scheidecker, Irene. Historic Stained Glass in selected Houses of Worship, Butte, Montana. Butte, MT: Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization, 2006.
Gibson, Richard I., ed. Vernacular Architecture Forum Guidebook, Butte and Southwest Montana. Butte, MT: Vernacular Architecture Forum, 2009.
Glasscock, C.B. The War of the Copper Kings. Helena, MT: Riverbend Publishing, 2002 [original 1935].
Kearney, Pat. Butte’s Catholic Family. Butte, MT: Skyhigh Communications, 2010.
Kearney, Pat. Butte Voices: Mining, Neighborhoods, People. Butte, MT: Skyhigh Communications, 1998.
Kearney, Pat. Butte's Pride - The Columbia Gardens. Butte, MT: Skyhigh Communications, 1994.
Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
Lutey, Kent. Lutey Brothers Marketeria. Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 28, p. 50-57. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society, 1978.
MacLane, Mary. The Story of Mary MacLane. Chicago, IL: Herbert S. Stone and Company, 1902.
MacLane, Mary. I, Mary MacLane: A Diary of Human Days. New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1917.
MacMillian, Donald. Smoke Wars. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000.
Malone, Michael P. The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1981.
McGlashan, Zena Beth. Buried in Butte. Butte, MT: Wordz & Ink Publishing, 2010.
Montana Historical Society. Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Helena, MT: Issue devoted to Butte, Montana, 2006.
Murphy, Mary. Mining Cultures: Men, Women, and Leisure in Butte, 1914-41. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
O’Daly, Hugh. Life History of Hugh O’Daly, written by himself at the age of 78 years. Unpublished typescript at Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, ca. 1945.
O’Malley, Richard K. Mile High, Mile Deep. Livingston, MT: Clark City Press, 2004.
Punke, Michael. Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2006.
Rickey, Les. The Bad Boys of Butte. Butte, MT: Old Butte Publishing, 2004.
Shea, Debbie Bowman. Irish Butte. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Shovers, Brian, ed. The Speculator: A Journal of Butte and Southwest Montana History. Butte, MT: Butte Historical Society, two volumes, four numbers, 1984-85.
Shovers, Brian. Remaking the Wide-Open Town: Butte at the End of the Twentieth Century. Helena, MT: Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Montana Historical Society, 1998.
Swibold, Dennis L. Copper Chorus. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2006.
Vincent, Matt, and Okrusch, Chad. Butte Then and Now. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Walter, Dave. More Montana Campfire Tales. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2002.
Wheeler, Burton K. Yankee from the West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1962.
World Museum of Mining. Mining in Butte. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Writer’s Project of Montana. Copper Camp. Helena, MT: Riverbend Publishing, 2002 [original 1943].