History & Culture

Butte, as the first major city in Montana and, at one time, the largest city west of the Mississippi River between Chicago and San Francisco, can accurately lay claim to the title of 'Montana's most historic city.' From its early days as a mining camp, to the rise of the Copper Kings and the resulting birth of the labor movement, through the industrialization and decline of mining, and down to a present marked by an environmental and urban renaissance, Butte's history is as colorful and diverse as the landscape of Montana.

Early Mining & The Copper Boom

Butte began in the late 1800s as a gold and silver mining camp. At the turn of the century, the development of electricity and the industrialization of America resulted in a massive copper boom, and Butte flourished. As copper mining ramped up and the city grew, it attracted workers from all over the globe, creating a unique cosmopolitan setting against the backdrop of the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. The influx of miners also gave Butte its hardscrabble reputation as a place where anything was possible, spawning a famous saloon and red light district, 'Venus Alley,' along Mercury Street. Today the main remnant of the wild old days is the Dumas Brothel, which operated until 1982, but the cultures of the many ethnic groups who came to work in Butte can still be found throughout the community, primarily in foods like the Cornish pasty, Slavic povitica and Scandinavian lefse, just to name a few.

The Copper Kings

The increasing demand for copper caused the copper mining industry in Butte to become one of the first centralized and industrialized businesses in the world. By the first decade of the 1900s, the Butte mines and associated smelting and processing operations, along with associated businesses like railroads and timber, were consolidated among the three Copper Kings: William A. Clark (whose daughter Huguette, along with what remained of her father's fortune, has been the subject of much recent attention in the U.S.), Marcus Daly, and F. Augustus Heinze.

Further consolidation occurred over the next several decades, resulting in the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, or ACM, that would dominate Butte, and Montana, for most of the 20th century.

The Labor Movement

The consolidation of mining interests placed heavy demands on the immigrant workers who toiled in the mines under harsh conditions. This situation led Butte to the forefront of labor organization and unionism, and it was one of the first cities in the world where the battle between labor and management played out.

Strikes and other conflicts sometimes turned violent, and conflicts were not only labor vs management. At times, unions vying for control turned against one another. Tensions broke loose during flashpoint events, such as the dynamiting of the Butte Miner's Union Hall in 1914 and the lynching of labor activist and International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little in 1917. At the peak of the labor conflict, martial law was declared in Butte from 1914 until 1921, the longest period of military occupation in the U.S. since the reconstruction era.

The Open Pit Era Begins

While numbers vary, the Butte population peaked in 1920 at more than 60,000. Some reports claim as many as 100,000 lived in the area. However, increasing industrialization of the mining process caused the town's growth to level off and then enter a long period of decline that became the most pronounced in 1955 with the opening of the Berkeley Pit. The Pit marked a transition from primarily underground mining to the much less labor-intensive open pit mining.

In 1977, the city and county governments consolidated to form the sole entity of Butte-Silver Bow, encompassing 717 square miles.

Decline & Stabilization

The Berkeley Pit operated until 1982, when increasing costs and low copper prices resulted in a full shutdown. Most underground mines had been closed in the 1970s, so for the first time in its history, Butte was a mining town without a mine. During the 1980s, the population declined before stabilizing around 32,000 in the early 1990s.

The stabilization was aided by the reopening of mining by Montana Resources (MR), owned by billionaire Dennis Washington. After purchasing some of the former Anaconda Company mining claims in Butte from ARCO (which purchased the Anaconda Company in 1976), MR restarted the Continental Pit, a copper and molybdenum open pit mine adjacent to the Berkeley, in 1986.

Modern Mining & Environmental Restoration

High energy costs and low copper prices again caused mining to cease in 2000, but the closure did not last long. Montana Resources resumed operations at the Continental Pit in 2002 on the heels of sharply rising copper prices, and that facility continues to operate today.

The late 1990s and early 21st century also marked a turning point for the mining-scarred environment of Butte. While the city still bears many prominent visual remnants of mining, the environmental effects of that century of industry are being actively remediated and restored through the federal Superfund program and a unique State of Montana lawsuit against the responsible companies. The net result is over $1 billion (yes, billion) dollars toward environmental restoration in the Butte area, starting in the 1990s and continuing through today and on for another decade or more. While the results of these cleanup efforts are massive and widespread, they are perhaps most notable on Silver Bow Creek west of the city. Formerly an industrial sewer, a restored Silver Bow Creek now boasts a healthy population of Montana's rare native cutthroat trout.

The Festival City

After a century of weathering the booms and busts of a mining-focused economy, the Butte community began a conscious campaign in the 1990s and early 21st century to diversify its economy. As new industries came to set up shop in Butte and the nearby Port of Montana, the city also began to utilize its long-neglected Historic Uptown District, one of the largest historic districts in the U.S., for public festivals and events.

Most notably, in 2007 Butte was selected to host the National Folk Festival (currently being held in Greensboro, North Carolina) for three consecutive years, attracting tens of thousands of new visitors and giving Butte yet another nickname, "The Festival City." After the three year run of National Folk Festivals, the community successfully transitioned to the Montana Folk Festival, which is held annually and continues to bring musicians and performers from across the globe to Montana.

Modern Butte is a community in transition, reusing its historic assets while continuing to expand and diversify amid the backdrop of Montana's wide open spaces.