Butte is a city and the county seat of Silver Bow County, Montana. In 1977, the city and county governments consolidated to form the sole entity of Butte-Silver Bow. As of the 2010 census, Butte's population was approximately 34,200. Butte is Montana's fifth largest city.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Butte experienced every stage of development of a mining town, from camp to boomtown to mature city to center for historic preservation and environmental cleanup. Unlike most such towns, Butte's urban landscape includes mining operations set within residential areas, making the environmental consequences of the extraction economy all the more apparent. Despite the dominance of the Anaconda Company, Butte was never a company town. It prided itself on architectural diversity and a civic ethos of rough-and-tumble individualism. In the 21st century, efforts at interpreting and preserving Butte's heritage are addressing both the town's historical significance and the continuing importance of mining to its economy and culture.
Butte was one of the largest cities in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Silver Bow County (Butte and suburbs) had 24,000 people in 1890, and peaked at 60,000 in 1920. The population steadily declined with falling copper prices after World War I, eventually dropping to 34,000 in 1990 and stabilized. In 2013, the population remains at 34,200. In its heyday between the late 19th century and about 1920, it was one of the largest and most notorious copper boomtowns in the American West, home to hundreds of saloons and a famous red-light district. The documentary Butte, America, depicts its history as a copper producer and the issues of labor unionism, economic rise and decline, and environmental degradation that resulted from the activity.
The city is served by Bert Mooney Airport with airport code BTM.
Butte began as a mining town in the late 19th century in the Silver Bow Creek Valley (or Summit Valley), a natural bowl sitting high in the Rockies straddling the Continental Divide. At first only gold and silver were mined in the area, but the advent of electricity caused a soaring demand for copper, which was abundant in the area. The small town was often called "the Richest Hill on Earth". It was the largest city for many hundreds of miles in all directions. The city attracted workers from Cornwall (United Kingdom), Ireland, Wales, Lebanon, Canada, Finland, Austria, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, Croatia, Montenegro, Mexico, and all areas of the U.S. The legacy of the immigrants lives on in the form of the Cornish pasty which was popularized by mine workers who needed something easy to eat in the mines, the povitica—a Slavic nut bread pastry which is a holiday favorite sold in many supermarkets and bakeries in Butte — and the boneless porkchop sandwich. These, along with huckleberry products and Scandinavian lefse have arguably become Montana's symbolic foods, known and enjoyed throughout Montana. In the ethnic neighborhoods, young men formed gangs to protect their territory and socialize into adult life, including the Irish of Dublin Gulch, the Eastern Europeans of the McQueen Addition, and the Italians of Meaderville.
Among the migrants, many Chinese workers moved in, and amongst them set up businesses that led to the creation of a Chinatown in Butte. The Chinese migrations stopped in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. There was anti-Chinese sentiment in the 1870s and onwards due to racism on the part of the white settlers, exacerbated by economic depression, and in 1895, the chamber of commerce and labor unions started a boycott of Chinese owned businesses. The business owners fought back by suing the unions and winning. The history of the Chinese migrants in Butte is documented in the Mai Wah Museum.
The influx of miners gave Butte a reputation as a wide-open town where any vice was obtainable. The city's famous saloon and red-light district, called the "Line" or "The Copper Block", was centered on Mercury Street, where the elegant bordellos included the famous Dumas Brothel. Behind the brothel was the equally famous Venus Alley, where women plied their trade in small cubicles called "cribs". The red-light district brought miners and other men from all over the region and was open until 1982 as one of the last such urban districts in the U.S. The Dumas Brothel is now operated as a museum to Butte's rougher days. Close by Wyoming Street is home to the Butte High School (home of the "Bulldogs").
At the end of the 19th century, copper was in great demand because of new technologies such as electric power that required the use of copper. Three men fought for control of Butte's mining wealth. These three "Copper Kings" were William A. Clark, Marcus Daly, and F. Augustus Heinze.
In 1899, Daly joined with William Rockefeller, Henry H. Rogers, and Thomas W. Lawson to organize the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company. Not long after, the company changed its name to Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM). Over the years, Anaconda was owned by assorted larger corporations. In the 1920s, it had a virtual monopoly over the mines in and around Butte. Between approximately 1900 and 1917, Butte also had a strong streak of Socialist politics, even electing a Mayor on the Socialist ticket in 1914.
The prosperity continued up to the 1950s, when the declining grade of ore and competition from other mines led the Anaconda company to switch its focus from the costly and dangerous practice of underground mining to open pit mining. This marked the beginning of the end for the boom times in Butte.
Butte was also known as "the Gibraltar of Unionism", with a very active labor union movement that sought to counter the power and influence of the Anaconda company, which was also simply known as "The Company."
By 1885, there were about 1,800 dues-paying members of a general union in Butte. That year the union reorganized as the Butte Miners' Union (BMU), spinning off all non-miners to separate craft unions. Some of these joined the Knights of Labor, and by 1886 the separate organizations came together to form the Silver Bow Trades and Labor Assembly, with 34 separate unions representing nearly all of the 6,000 workers around Butte. The BMU established branch unions in mining towns like Barker, Castle, Champion, Granite, and Neihart, and extended support to other mining camps hundreds of miles away.
In 1892 there was a violent strike in Coeur d'Alene. Although the BMU was experiencing relatively friendly relations with local management, the events in Idaho were disturbing. The BMU not only sent thousands of dollars to support the Idaho miners, they mortgaged their buildings to send more.
There was a growing concern that local unions were vulnerable to the power of Mine Owners' Associations like the one in Coeur d'Alene. In May 1893, about forty delegates from northern hard-rock mining camps met in Butte and established the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which sought to organize miners throughout the West. The Butte Miners' Union became Local Number One of the new WFM. The WFM won a strike in Cripple Creek, Colorado, the following year, but then in 1896–97 lost another violent strike in Leadville, Colorado, prompting the Montana State Trades and Labor Council to issue a proclamation to organize a new Western labor federation along industrial lines.
After 1905, Butte became a hotbed of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the "Wobblies") organizing. There were a number of clashes between laborers, labor organizers, and the Anaconda company, including the 1917 lynching of IWW executive board officer Frank Little. In 1920, company mine guards gunned down strikers in the Anaconda Road Massacre. Seventeen were shot in the back as they tried to flee, and one man died.
In 1917, copper production from the Butte mines peaked and steadily declined thereafter. By WWII, copper production from the ACM's holdings in Chuquicamata, Chile, far exceeded Butte's production. The historian Janet Finn has examined this "tale of two cities"—Butte and Chuquicamata as two ACM mining towns.
Commercial breweries first opened in Butte, in the 1870s; they were usually run by German immigrants, including Leopold Schmidt, Henry Mueller, and Henry Muntzer. The breweries were always staffed by union workers. Most ethnic groups in Butte, from Germans and Irish to Italians and various Eastern Europeans, including children, enjoyed the locally brewed lagers, bocks, and other types of beer. By the 1960s, major national brands dominated the market, including Budweiser, Miller and Coors; by the 1990s, however, small microbreweries in Butte and nearby cities found a niche market, and international imports became widely available.
The open-pit era
Since the 1950s, five major developments have occurred: the Anaconda's decision to begin open-pit mining in the mid-1950s; a series of fires in Butte's business district in the 1970s; a debate over whether to relocate the city's historic business district; a new civic leadership; and the end of copper mining in 1983. In response, Butte looked for ways to diversify the economy and provide employment. The legacy of over a century of environmental degradation has, for example, produced some jobs. Environmental cleanup in Butte, designated a Superfund site, has employed hundreds of people.
Thousands of homes were destroyed in the Meaderville suburb and surrounding areas, McQueen and East Butte, to excavate the Berkeley Pit, which opened in 1955 by Anaconda Copper. At the time, it was the largest truck-operated open pit copper mine in the United States. Other open pit mines were dug in the area, including the still-operational East Continental Pit. The Berkeley pit grew with time until it bordered the Columbia Gardens, a large fairground established by Montana businessman William A. Clark. After the Gardens caught fire and burned to the ground in November 1973, the pit was expanded into the site. In 1977 the ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) company purchased Anaconda Mining, and only three years later started shutting down mines due to lower metal prices. In 1982, all mining in the Berkeley Pit was suspended. In 1983, an organization of low income and unemployed residents of Butte formed to fight for jobs and environmental justice; the Butte Community Union produced a detailed plan for community revitalization and won substantial benefits, including a Montana Supreme Court victory striking down as unconstitutional State elimination of welfare benefits.
Anaconda stopped mining at the Continental Pit in 1983. Montana Resources LLP bought the property and reopened the Continental pit in 1986. The company stopped mining in 2000, but resumed in 2003 with higher metal prices, and continues at last report, employing 346 people. From 1880 through 2005, the mines of the Butte district have produced more than 9.6 million metric tons of copper, 2.1 million metric tons of zinc, 1.6 million metric tons of manganese, 381,000 metric tons of lead, 87,000 metric tons of molybdenum, 715 million troy ounces (22,200 metric tons) of silver, and 2.9 million ounces (90 metric tons) of gold.
When mining shut down at the Berkeley pit in 1982, water pumps in nearby mines were also shut down, which resulted in highly acidic water laced with toxic heavy metals filling up the pit. Only two years later the pit was classified as a Superfund site and an environmental hazard site. Meanwhile, the acidic water continued to rise. It was not until the 1990s that serious efforts to clean up the Berkeley Pit began. The situation gained even more attention after as many as 342 migrating geese chose the pit lake as a resting place, resulting in their deaths. Steps have since been taken to prevent a recurrence, including but not limited to loudspeakers broadcasting sounds to scare off waterfowl. However, in November 2003 the Horseshoe Bend treatment facility went online and began treating and diverting much of the water that would have flowed into the pit. Ironically, the Berkeley Pit is also one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. It is the largest pit lake in the United States, and is the most costly part of the country's largest Superfund site.
Over a dozen of the headframes still stand over the mine shafts, and the city still contains thousands of historic commercial and residential buildings from the boom times, which, especially in the Uptown section, give it a very old-fashioned appearance, with many commercial buildings not fully occupied. As with many industrial cities, tourism and services, especially health care (Butte's St. James Hospital has Southwest Montana's only major trauma center), are rising as primary employers. Many areas of the city, especially the areas near the old mines, show signs of urban blight but a recent influx of investors and an aggressive campaign to remedy blight has led to a renewed interest in restoring property in Uptown Butte's historic district, which was expanded in 2006 to include parts of Anaconda and is now the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States with nearly 6,000 contributing properties.
A century after the era of intensive mining and smelting, the area around the city remains an environmental issue. Arsenic and heavy metals such as lead are found in high concentrations in some spots affected by old mining, and for a period of time in the 1990s the tap water was unsafe to drink due to poor filtration and decades-old wooden supply pipes. Efforts to improve the water supply have taken place in the past few years, with millions of dollars being invested to upgrade water lines and repair infrastructure. Environmental research and clean-up efforts have contributed to the diversification of the local economy, and signs of vitality remain, including a multi-million dollar polysilicon manufacturing plant locating nearby in the 1990s and the city's recognition and designation in the late 1990s as an All-American City and also as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2002. In 2004, Butte received another economic boost as well as international recognition as the location for the Hollywood film Don't Come Knocking, directed by renowned director Wim Wenders and released throughout the world in 2006.
A larger annual celebration is Evel Knievel Days, held on the last weekend of July. This event draws over 50,000 motor sport enthuisasts and fans of Evel Knievel from around the world.
Butte is perhaps becoming most renowned for the regional Montana Folk Festival held on the second weekend in July. In 2013, this event attracted 170,000 attendees for the three-day celebration of traditional music, art,dance and cuisine. This event began its run in Butte as the National Folk Festival from 2008 to 2010 and in 2011 made the transition to the largest free-of-admission music festival in Montana and, most likely, in the Pacific Northwest.
Butte's Fourth of July Parade and Fireworks show is the largest in the state. In 2008 Barack Obama spent his last Fourth of July before his Presidency campaigning in Butte, taking in the parade with his family, and celebrating his daughter Malia Obama's 10th birthday.
In March 2009, Butte was the location of an airplane crash that made headlines worldwide. Fourteen passengers and crew were killed when the plane crashed into the Holy Cross Cemetery near the runway at Bert Mooney Airport.