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History of Butte, Montana

"Uptown" Butte
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Before beginning to touch upon what Butte is today, it is necessary to provide a quick history of Butte. Without understanding the basic history of Butte, it makes it much more difficult to understand what the city is today.

Butte began as nothing more than a bunch of mining camps back in the early 1870’s. Then, silver and copper was discovered. This discovery brought in a flood of new companies and people to Butte. By the late 1870’s, a large and bustling city center had emerged – and was growing larger literally by the day. Then, as fate would have it, a fire in 1879 burned down the entire central business district. Following this disaster, the Butte city council passed a law that required all new buildings downtown (known as "Uptown Butte") to be built from brick or stone – most of which still stand today and what help make Butte such a historic and unique city.

While silver and gold were actively mined in Butte, it was copper that truly put Butte on the map. Following the development of electricity, the demand for copper mushroomed. The demand for copper continued to increase – and really spiked during World War I, where copper was used in every single rifle bullet (much of which came from Butte). Indeed, it is estimated that Butte supplied around 1/3 of the copper for the United States in the late 1800’s and the early part of the 1900’s.

The World War I era was truly the boom time for Butte – as demand soared for its minerals. Indeed, the city of Butte claims in one of their signs that right after World War I, Butte was the most prosperous town in the whole United States!

Mining Rig in Butte
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Not to miss out on all this prosperity, big business started getting heavily involved. Standard Oil Company, though the purchase of numerous mines and smelters, formed a conglomerate called the Amalgmated Copper Mining Company in 1899, which soon became the Anaconda Mining Company. Perhaps not coincidentally, following the emergence of this large company, many problems in the form of management-labor disputes started happening. Numerous strikes on behalf of Labor and strike-breaker actions on the part of the companies began to commonly play out. These confrontations between labor and management even led to the shooting death of several miners by the hired security of the mines.

The Anaconda Mining Company got so big, in fact, that by the late 1920’s it was the fourth largest company in the world – and by far the largest company in Montana. It owned virtually every mine “on the hill” in Butte (the “hill” is the hill above and around Butte that contained all the minerals and where most active mining was done).

During the 1930’s and 40’s, Butte continued to pour out tons of copper every day, although the Great Depression of the 1930’s led to less demand for the minerals a resulting decline in population.

It was the 1950’s, though, that really began to change things for Butte. The Anaconda Mining Company, to reduce the costs involved in the labor-intensive nature of underground mining, started to conduct open strip mining. Thus, instead of tunneling down for the copper, entire hillsides were simply removed. The legacy of this is completely obvious today, too, in the form of the Berkeley Pit and other nearby strip mines (some of which are still active strip mines today). The other legacy of this strip mining is that two towns and countless homes that were once located “on the hill” were completely destroyed.

Throughout the remainder of the 1900’s, mining was still conducted in Butte, with the large strip mine – the Berkley Pit – shut down to active mining operations in 1982. However, fewer and fewer people worked in the industry, leading to a steady loss of both businesses and people from Butte.

Further adding injury to a loss of population, the environmental disaster that Butte was finally became noticed. The Superfund Act declared the area around Butte, including the Berkeley Pitt, as a Superfund Site – the largest in the United States. The reason for the Superfund designation was because all the heavy metals lying around on the surface of the ground leached toxic metals into the nearby rivers and into the water table. Before action was taken to clean this up, it was common for the Clark Fork River (which begins just to the west of Butte) to literally run red during heavy rains.

The Anaconda Mining Company in 1977 merged into the Arco Company. ARCO then ceased all mining operations in Butte in 1983 (although they still ended up paying for the Superfund Cleanup that followed). Strip mining operations resumed in 1983 when Montana Resources started active strip mining in adjacent areas near the Berkeley Pit).

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