Butte is obviously quite different than it was just 30 or 40 years ago. While the bulk of the historic buildings built during the heyday of Butte remain (and many have been or are in the process of being nicely refurbished), numerous buildings are either fully or partially empty. Again, this should not be a surprise. Butte built up an infrastructure to support around 100,000 people during the 1920’s. While the people moved out of Butte as the city declined, the buildings (as they were made of stone), remained. As such, a visitor to downtown Butte (also known as "Uptown Butte" since the downtown area is on the "hill") will see many buildings that seem nearly deserted. A closer look at many downtown buildings (beyond things like the courthouses, city government centers, etc…) reveals that often-times only the street level stores are occupied – while many of the upper-stories of the buildings (especially in the back) are completely deserted.
Likewise, when driving around Butte, both downtown and just on the fringe of the downtown area, you will also see some abandoned buildings scattered around. However, considering the fast loss of population, the lack of large numbers of completely abandoned buildings is a surprise. Butte, contrary to popular belief, is not a town full of empty buildings. Instead, most buildings are used, just not to their full capacity.
Of course, since Butte was a mining town, the most obvious feature about Butte today are the dozens of abandoned mining rigs that dot the skyline around Butte. Some of these rigs are just a stone throw away from downtown, with most of the rigs being less than 4 miles as the crow flies away from Uptown. These mining derricks, which are black in color and often rise 200 feet in the air, make a definitive statement about what drove the city earlier in the 1900’s.
One of the neat things in Butte are the many “ghost signs”. “Ghost Signs”, in case you’re wondering, are old – often very old – signs painted on the sides of buildings (a cheap version of a billboard). Most of the businesses these signs promote are long-gone now, yet the signs remain – promoting strange and long departed businesses. These signs add a certain mystique to Butte which is sort of hard to explain until you visit and see them for yourself – especially since these signs are often 70 years old or more. I was gratified to learn that Butte is attempting to preserve these “ghost signs.”
As is common with other cities across America, downtown Butte has had to battle the creation of strip mall areas and shopping centers. In Butte, the new development is primarily occurring down in the “flats” of town – which lie to the south of downtown (by about 2-3 miles). This is where not only the new retail development is occurring, but also where new housing developments are being built.
Curiously, far Upper Butte (which lies further above town on the hill and includes the tiny town of Walkerville) seems completely ignored as far as development. Indeed, in my travels around Butte, far Upper Butte seems to be the most neglected. I can’t figure out why, either, since the whole area strikes me as being prime for housing development due to the proximity to the Uptown historic area and the stunning views of the surrounding mountains Upper Butte provides.
Butte today, employment wise, is like most other Montana cities. Service level jobs predominate. Until recently, Butte still had some decent jobs from what was Montana Power. But, complete screw-ups by the State Legislature allowed for the sale of Montana Power to Touch America, which then sold off its power division to Northwest Energy. As a consequence of these horrible miscalculations on the part of Montana’s legislature, Montana not only went from having dirt cheap electricity to very expensive electricity, Butte also lost many very high paying jobs as well – as both Northwest Energy and Touch America shredded their employment rolls and sought bankruptcy.
The worse affects of the Great Recession, however, have spared Butte (and most of Montana, for that matter). Unlike other areas out West and in tourist spots of Montana, housing in Butte never reached the stratospheric levels found elsewhere. Additionally, the resurgence in mining brought about by surging commodity prices have benefited Butte and the surrounding area.
Next Page : The Location of Butte
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