Telling Butte’s Stories

Archives and fire station, ButteLet me just jump right in:  I do not know of another town in Montana that has done more with the concept of heritage development than Butte in the last 30 years.  Heritage development, in brief, means that a community identifies the stories and places that define their past and sense of identity and then uses them as tools for community revitalization and growth.  The stories and places must be authentic, meaningful, real–fake pasts don’t get you very far.  In 1981, out of fears that its storied and nationally significant history would be lost in the haze of late 20th century urban renewal and economic change, Butte created as part of local government the Butte-Silver Bow Archives–everyone I knew were excited about its potential and its early discoveries at the time of the state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985.  Now that institution is one of the key rocks upon which Butte’s future lays.  Above is the conversion of a historic firehall into the modern archives/heritage center the institution is today–in itself a great example of adaptive reuse and historic preservation at work.

Professional staff and volunteers, all led by Ellen Crain, keep both the community and scholars engaged–the number of strong histories, public projects, and exhibits that have come, in whole or in part, from this place in the last 30 years is very impressive.  Plus it is

IMG_1105a vibrant institution, always in touch as its community room hosts other heritage groups and special programs throughout the year.  The archives is just around the corner from one of the most important, and solemn,  places in the city, the location of the Butte Miners’ Union Hall, which was bombed in 1914.

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Now an interpretive monument talks about the union, the bombing, and addresses directly a chilling chapter in the long struggle between labor and capital in Butte. Installed c. 1993 near the “top” of Main Street, this site sets the stage for the amount of public interpretation found in the city today.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 033Heritage development has become part of the basic sinews of Butte. Along with its active archives board, the city also maintains an effective historic district commission, and provided seed money for several key projects over the past generation.  The Original Mine site below, the city’s first copper mine, not only serves as part of the city’s public

interpretation efforts, it is also a place for community gatherings, such as the Montana Folklife Festival in recent years. It is important to note that the marker at the Original just doesn’t celebrate the technology it also notes how many men–43–died at that mine.  The progress of Butte happened on the back of its working class miners.

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Here is another promising change:  the willingness to landmark and discuss the human costs of mining.  Butte’s most infamous event was the Granite Mountain/ Speculator Mine disaster of 1917 in which 168 miners died–still the single most deadly disaster in American hard-rock mining history. Not that the event was ignored at the time.  In fact the North Butte mining company erected the memorial above to those who perished in Mountain View Cemetery, far from the scene, shortly thereafter.  Who knew this memorial existed?  There were no signs marking the way there–you had to search to find it.

IMG_1230Today the Granite Mountain site is one of the best interpreted mining properties I have encountered.  The miners’ stories are told–often with the words they were able to write down before dying from the lack of oxygen–and their multiple ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged, and celebrated.

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IMG_0977The interpretive memorial overlooks the mine, and is located high over town.  But when I visited in May 2012 a school group was there too, along with visitors like me.

ARCO, along with public partners, funded the site in this century, as part of the general Superfund cleanup of the mining district.  But the park was long overdue as well as the recognition that some 2,500 miners lost their lives in the Butte district.  The marker’s statement–“you are standing on hallowed ground”–is typically reserved for military parks.  Within the context of Butte, however, it is totally justified, and an important point to remember wherever you are in the city.

The reality that Butte’s mines contributed significantly to American war efforts in the 20th century is recalled through a public art mural near a public transit stop.  Public sculpture also interprets what was and what has been lost in Butte.

Through the efforts of the state historic preservation office, and its commendable program of providing interpretive markers for National Register properties, the residential side of Butte’s story is also being told.  You have to love the “blue” house, associated with U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the New Deal era movers and shakers.

I-15 interpretive markers, ButteAll of these efforts considerably enhance earlier efforts at public interpretation, be they along Interstate I-15 and its overview of Butte or the visitor center maintained just off the

Butte Visitor Centerinterstate by the local chamber of commerce.  The center, yet another change in the last 30 years, is an attractive reproduction of a classic railroad depot design.  It also provides a useful perspective of the city from its south side, giving special prominence to the soaring clock tower of the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Butte overview from visitor centerThe Berkeley Pit in 1984 was a giant hole in the earth, with a viewing stand.  It too now has a more comprehensive heritage experience with a small visitor center/ museum adding to the public understanding of the massiveness and significance of the pit.

Berkeley Pit, entrance, Butte

Then of course, designed for highway travelers and tourists, there is the now classic World Museum of Mining, established in 1965 around the Orphan Girl mine.  The WMM lets rusting industrial artifacts convey part of the story while the existing mining buildings are open, allowing you to get a more physical experience of what the head frames and mines were really about.  And, as typical of Montana museums of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the attached “frontier village,” interpreting what early Butte was all about. Don’t get me

wrong: there are many things to like about the WMM–it is rich in artifacts, as the miners items above suggest (and more about it in another post).  But it is a controlled, sterile experience, and I would hate for that to be the only takeaway visitors have about Butte and its significance.  The museum is away from uptown Butte, and visitors who stop here may never go explore the deeper story within the town and its historic neighborhoods.

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Old Butte Historical Adventures on Main Street is just one group of heritage entrepreneurs who provide visitors with a “up close and personal” viewpoint and experience of Butte’s historic landscape.  Walking tours of Uptown along with various special theme tours engage visitors and residents with local history in a way different from traditional monuments, markers, and historic sites.

But one must be aware that the pressure to commercialize can also distort, and demean, the significance of it all.  What happens at the Dumas Hotel–a historic brothel–will be interesting to watch.  The story of prostitution is very much part of the fabric of the city, but one that for many years people did not want to tell, except with snide references and a snicker or two.  Let’s hope that changes as the Dumas is restored and opened as a heritage venue:  addressing the sex trade and role of women and men accurately and in context would add immeasurably to the sense of authenticity, of realism, in the Butte story.

Butte Greenway towards Walkerville

The most exciting part of Butte’s heritage development to my mind are the series of greenways or trails that link the mines to the business and residential districts and that link Butte to neighboring enclaves like Walkerville (shown above).  Recreational opportunity–walking, jogging, boarding, biking–is a huge component of livable spaces for the 21st century.  When these trails are enhanced by the stories they touch or cover,

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they become even more meaningful and valuable.  If you have lived in Montana for 6 months or 60 years, it is time to return to Butte and take the Copper Trail–not only would it be good for your health, it also gives you a lasting perspective of a mining town within the vast Northern Rockies landscape, and how men and women from all sorts of backgrounds and nations established a real community, one that has outlasted the mines that first created it.

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