Butte–the copper city that was once the largest urban area in Montana–was a place undergoing tremendous stress at the time of state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985. The closing of the Berkeley Pit–the most scarred landscape of that time in Montana (the coal pits of Colstrip now surpass it)–shocked so many since Anaconda
Copper Company officials had promised that when the town of Meaderville was destroyed for the pit generations of work would ensue. Schools, homes, churches were uprooted, sometimes even buried so the frenzied mining could continue, tearing away half of the town’s built environment. What had been lost to gain so little.
Then in the early 1980s came the next blow: the Anaconda smelter closed too–an era had passed, with the boom of the 1970s suddenly crashing. What would replace it, what could replace it, was there even hope in Butte? I remember the pessimism of those days.
Naturally some immediately said that the past was now in the way, that only massive urban renewal would save butte and create opportunity for the future. Residents combined with professionals and activists to say no: the past was the future for Butte. The state office certainly provided what resources it could. Butte was the largest National Historic Landmark in Montana. We didn’t really have any idea of the number of resources and exactly what the boundaries included but everyone accepted that Butte was a place apart not only for Montana but much of the United States. Really strong preservationists and archivists (I admired what Fred Quivik, Ellen Crain, and Brian Shovers were doing there in the mid-1980s) were already in place, doing everything they could to record, identify, and preserve the stories, places, and individuals who shaped this most unique place. For me, in 1985, Butte was literally a morass: so rich in story, architecture, sense of place, ethnic identity that it was difficult to grasp. And frankly it remained that way until I returned for a serious engagement with this place in 2012. That is when I stood at the Mile High, Mile Deep Mine, now accessible to the public through the marvelous Copper Trail.
From here you understood that Uptown–the state’s most sophisticated urban setting–was little more than a speck within a larger landscape where people lived and toiled, scratching out lives for their families, building communities, providing raw materials to a hungry industrial world. But what seemed to me to be the vastness of Butte was actually a decidedly human response to the far greater vastness of the northern Rockies. Here was a landscape of work like few others in this nation.
There are few better places in the United States to explore the landscape of work, and how opportunity attracted all types of people from all sorts of lands to mine the copper, to house the workers, to feed the families, to provide rest and relaxation, to do all of things big and small it takes to keep a place humming 24 hours a day for decades, taking from the earth materials that made modern suburban America possible.
I cannot touch upon everything or everyone that define the Butte experience today but in the next several posts I want to dig deep into this landscape and discuss how this transformed place is now, for me, the most compelling spot of all in Montana.