Requiem For an Old Mountain Mining Town: Stories From Butte, Montana

Like most of its coal mining Appalachian counterparts on the other side of the Mississippi, the city of Butte, Montana subsists today on little more than the fumes of its former glory. Now, over a half century removed from halcyon days of its prosperous, copper-rich youth, Butte has settled down into the stagnant obsolescence that characterizes the penultimate stage in the life cycle of the American town. For the last 20 years, Butte has not grown or shrunk. Instead, it has merely existed, staying steady at a population of around 34,000 residents, or a little more than half of the city’s population at its peak.  

In recent years, tourism had become one of the pillars of Butte’s economy and, while I hadn’t planned on doing so, I ended up becoming part of the city’s nascent tourist base this past summer. I had just finished walking around the campus of Montana State University, a land-grant college in Bozeman where my father had gone for undergrad, and had been driving through the Rocky Mountains towards Washington state for a about an hour when I ended up having to make an impromptu pit stop at the nearest town, which happened to be Butte. After filling the car up, I decided to drive around a bit and started climbing up Main Street to Butte’s Uptown. As I traveled higher up into the city, I started noticing all of these towering, skeletal headframes come into my periphery. These headframes, which look like crosses between an oil derrick and an old wooden roller coaster, were the most visible relics of heyday of the long abandoned copper mines that were embedded all across the surrounding residential and commercial districts. The further north I went, the more industrial the landscape got, until I reached the serpentine roadways of the suburban town of Walkerville (Pop: 679), a tiny post-industrial casualty of our 21st century economy which sits atop a barren, contaminated heap of land that was once referred to as the“Richest Hill on Earth.”Originally developed as a silver mining town in the latter part of the 19th century, Walkerville and the surrounding area in Butte soon became the center of copper mining in the Western United States as a wealth of newly discovered copper deposits in the region and the widespread use of electricity combined to turn the area into one big boomtown.

After peaking during World War I, copper production in and around  Butte began a slow decline due to global competition from countries like Chile and the diminishing amount of quality copper available for mining in Montana. By the 1950s, the labor-intensive and highly dangerous underground mining that had provided the bulk of Butte and Walkerville residents with employment had been scrapped in favor of open-pit mining, a more cost-effective, but environmentally destructive form of mining that requires a much smaller labor force. From that point on, Butte and Walkerville were in full blown bust mode, hemorrhaging jobs at a crippling rate. In 1983, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company closed the last of its copper mining operations in the area, marking the official beginning of a painful transitional period for Butte, one the city has yet to get over.

130710_0055The main mine shaft at the abandoned Mountain Con Mine in Butte, MT

I run into Russell after parking my car in an empty parking lot beneath a mammoth headframe that stands on what used to be the old Mountain Con Mine Yard. Closed in the late 1970s, the Mountain Con Mine Yard had lay toxic and unused for more than 3 decades until Atlantic Richfield, the former owners of the property, “decided”(1) to turn the space into a public park and give the land to the city. The park has roughly 2 miles of trails that provide panoramic views of the Summit Valley, where Butte is situated, and links up with The Granite Mountain Mine Memorial, which was erected to honor the lives of the 168 men who died in a horrific mine fire that occurred there in 1917, an event that holds the ignominious distinction of being the worst copper mine disaster in United States history. Russell had just come down from the direction of the memorial and, as if we were already well acquainted with one another, just began talking to me about the history of the mine while we both stared up at the rickety old headframe that stood purposelessly in front of us.

Russell was in the type of shape characteristic of a man who had never so much as set foot behind a desk. In his late 50s or early 60s, he exuded a kind of wiry, clever strength from beneath his aged and languorous flesh. All he was wearing was a pair of a knee length gray sweat-shorts, complimented by a ragged old pair of gym shoes and once-white tube socks. Russell’s pale, pinkish skin was drenched in sweat and he was wiping himself off with his t-shirt when he started to talk to me:

“You see that ladder there? Those steps that go to the top of the tower? I used to climb that when I was younger. Me and my friends would climb up that damn thing—I don’t know how we did it. We were 10 or 12 or something like that and thought we’d never die, so we’d climb up the headframe and when we’d get to the very top we’d find these big, 5 gallon barrels of just…grease. It was the grease they’d use to grease up the ropes that they’d use. Well, they weren’t actually ropes like you and me’d think of them, but they were cables, and they’d use these cables to pull all of the ore up out of the mine. It’s a solid mile down to the bottom of that mine shaft there, so you’d better be sure them cables were tough. You don’t want to be there when one of them things snaps.”

Did that sort of thing happen often?

“Oh, Lord. That mine right there was a death trap. Thousands of miners have died on this ground right here. I’d say maybe 700 or 800 in that one mine alone. See, when they first put up these mines they didn’t have no engineers or nothing like that. It was just a bunch of immigrants who never graduated the 5th grade that built these mines and they didn’t have backgrounds in engineering or building or nothing like that. So, whenever you’d get in that mine elevator, the son of a bitch would shake and rattle the whole damn time you were on her. We was always scared she was gonna break down. When you were going down into the mines, there’d be guys sticking their tongue in your ears or tapping you on your balls…anything to take your mind off the fact that you were in a rumbling death machine. I was scared shitless every time I went down that damn thing and I think every guy who been down there in it would say the same thing. Any man who doesn’t is either full of shit or stupid.

That mine was hell, it really was. It was also the coldest damn mine I ever gone down. I was a miner for more than 3 decades and I worked everywhere. I been down in mines in Colorado and Utah and Idaho…never felt a mine as deadly cold as the Mountain Con Mine here in Butte.”

How cold does it get around here?

“Well, in the winter you’d practically be freezing to death. Come December and January, the temperature hovers around zero in the early morning when you’re heading to work. So, all of us would be out there before the sun had even come up, standing out in the dark waiting to get in that damned elevator while our nuts froze off. Of course, when you get down into the mountain and get to working a while the cold goes away and you end up drenched head to toe in sweat, at least til you come up again. Goddamn, it was so cold in winter that you could feel it come washing over your body when you were still half a mile below ground on your way up the mine shaft. They had set up some warm showers a hundred yards or so to the side of the mine and I swear that in the time it took for us to step out of the elevator and walk halfway to the showers our clothes had frozen stiff as boards on us. But, lord did those showers feel good. I’m telling you…”

Did your dad work in the mine?

“My whole family worked in this mine. My dad worked in this mine and my grandad worked in this mine. Actually, if you look over there [points at a small neighborhood across N. Main St], you see that little white house with the side yard over there? That’s where we lived. My grandmother used to stand out on the porch there with her rosary beads when the men would go out to work and she wouldn’t stop counting them beads until she saw us walking home. Every damn day she’d just count beads and say her Hail Marys to make sure we got home safe. That woman was Catholic like you wouldn’t believe. Hell, most of the damn town was Catholic back then. That’s what happens when the entire country of Ireland heads west to make a living mining copper. Sure there were a bunch of Finns and Slavs and such that came over too, but it mostly Irish, which means it was mostly Catholic. I mean, it’s still Catholic now(2), but not like it was back then(3).

There was a time when this town was the biggest thing west of The Mississippi. [pause] I’m serious. They couldn’t build the homes around here fast enough, there were so many people coming. And the value of your house didn’t have nothing to do with how big or pretty the damn thing was…it was all about how close you were to the mine. Because everybody worked in the mines and how far you had to walk to work made a hell of a difference after you just spent all day working yourself to death. That was the difference back then, I guess. Everyone was working. Folks was working and they were united too. You know that Butte used the to the socialist capitol of the west? People don’t like to say that word much anymore, but fuck it. Those guys weren’t like the commies or the Soviets or nothin’. They were hard working men who got together and went on strike ’cause they weren’t getting their due. And it wasn’t like they were just striking for money. It was more than that. They were striking for an 8 hour work day…Saturdays and Sundays off, you know, just enough money to go fishing and hunting on the weekends and pitch in the $2 a month so their kids could go to Catholic School. But, it was easier to strike in those days. Used to be, your boss would have to hire a scab to fill your place if he fired you. Nowadays he’ll just fire your ass and get a machine to do your job for you.”

As you can partially see from the grass growing in this formerly toxic land, the mine and adjacent property have been turned into a public park.

Did you work in Butte all your life?

“Nah. I only worked at the Mountain Con Mine for a few years when I was young. After that I bounced all over the place. I even worked in West Virginia once. I wasn’t mining at the time, I was boilermaking…part of a boilermaker’s union outside of Bluefield, you know, towards the south there? Well, anyways, I got the job because  I ran into these two guys…just big, huge guys who had played football at West Virginia…The Mountaineers, I think it was. Story was that they’d played college ball and tried out for the pros, but busted their knees. So, since they couldn’t play football, they started working in the mines instead. That’s about when they run into me and ask me what I’m doing and I tell them I’m doing nothing, but that I been trained as a boilermaker and they say they can get me a job, no problem. Then they ask me where I’m living and I tell ’em I’m just living out my truck and they say they have a place for me to stay with their old woman. So the next day they got me a job boilermaking and after the day’s over, I head over to ’em with the first month’s rent as a deposit for the place they set me up with and they won’t have it and that their old lady wouldn’t have it neither. They told me to keep it.

So, I finally make it down to the little house, which was situated in this one holler a few miles outside of town that was just dirt poor…I mean, there weren’t no running water or toilets or anything like that. So, I get down there and I try to give the deposit to the old lady and she tells me to keep it. Says she won’t take the money, but that she always needs somebody to shovel the walk when it snows, cause her back can’t take it…so, she makes me an offer that she’ll give me fresh batch of soup every week when it snows if I’ll clear the way to the house. Not only that, I come home from my first day of work and there’s this crate of apples sitting on the front porch…see, the kids in the neighborhood had heard that I was new in town and didn’t have much money, so they picked some apples for me so I wouldn’t go hungry. I had so much food back then I didn’t know what to do with it all. Nicest people I ever met in my entire life.”

What was it like at work?

“It was the same way at the job too. Every time when I went to work—when I came in and when I left—there was always somebody there to thank you for the work you done. Most places they don’t even bother to learn your name, but in West Virginia they made you feel wanted, you know? It was a town where everybody knew each other. Kinda like Butte.”


(1) Atlantic Richfield, a subsidiary of BP America, “decided” to reclamate the land around the old Mountain Con Mine in the same way that someone who is caught drinking and driving “decides” to complete a a month of outpatient drug and alcohol therapy. After years of litigation over what the Environmental Protection Agency exhaustively documented to be a highly illegal and toxic buildup of lead, mercury and arsenic in Butte’s soil and water supplies from a century of mining operations, Atlantic Richfield finally settled and agreed to put $187 million towards natural resource reclamation activities in the Butte-Silver Bow area.

(2) As of 2010, more than 60% of the religiously active residents of Butte still identified as being Roman Catholic. The 2nd most adhered to religion in Butte, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, only represents 12% of the town’s churchgoing population.

(3) Butte, along with much of Southwestern Montana, have significant ties to the Catholic Church. In 1840, Father Pierre-John De Smet, a Jesuit missionary originally from Belgium, became the first man to conduct a Christian religious service in Montana when he held mass for his fellow missionaries and about 350 Pend d’Oreilles Indians at what is now the town of Three Forks, about 55 miles east of Butte. Father De Smet would spend over 30 years going through the Midwest, doing missionary work with American Indian tribes in the region and becoming close with famed Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. He would eventually convince the chief to acknowledge the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which the US Government promised the Lakota the ownership rights to the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota in perpetuity. In less than a decade, the US Government would break this agreement, leading to a series of battles between the Lakota and US forces which included The Battle of Little Bighorn. Despite this betrayal, Sitting Bull seemed not to hold it against Father De Smet, as he would continue wearing the crucifix given to him by the Jesuit priest for much of the rest of his life.

Categories: Book Excerpts/News, Labor

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1 reply

  1. Good story!

    My personal history is intertwined with the cotton/textiles industry in the South. My grandmothers and grandfathers on both sides of my family retired from cotton mills and I was raised in a cotton mill village. Every member of my family has worked in the mills at one time or another, including my mom and dad, who were both the first in their families to attend college. (Ironically my dad has a degree in Textile Engineering from Auburn, which became absolutely useless in the late 70s).

    The mills are all gone now, deserted and desolate, whole towns throughout the South decimated by the loss of this once-important industry. Most young people I talk to these days don’t even know what a cotton mill is and few people remember the boom times of my late-60s childhood. Sad.

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