Wandering the West
July 7, 2009
Many years back, when I was starting my career, I worked at a perfectly awful TV station in Great Falls, Montana. Everyone there made relentless fun of their rival city, Butte, down the road on I-15, so naturally I did too. Back then Butte was the butt of jokes, but when I finally did stop in, I was instantly fascinated and charmed by its colorful characters and living history.
For anyone with the slightest interest in Western history, mining history, ethnic history, and the history of labor unions and union activism in this country, Butte is a must stop. There are really two Buttes. The Butte of the valley floor in this city ringed by mountains is just another city full of franchises and subdivisions. But historic Uptown Butte the Butte that climbs up the hillside is the core of one of the West’s most interesting places.
The first things you’ll notice are the 14 black metal head frames that dot the hillside, each marking the shaft entrance to an underground mine. The fact that not one or two, but 14, survive tells you this was a major mining area. It was called "The Richest Hill on Earth," and was loaded with copper, which an industrializing America at the turn of the 19th century needed in vast quantities.
In a story that echoes Park City, but on a much larger scale, the immigrants to America heard there was plenty of work in Butte and hopped on trains immediately after clearing Ellis Island. Butte today remains an ethnic melting pot, although the lines blur over time.
I know, when I kicked around there, there was a bar that called itself "The Last of Finntown" that featured saunas and steam rooms in the basement. You could still buy Cornish pasties, or meat pies, at a number of stores, and Italian restaurants and Irish bars were the real deal. At Gamer’s Restaurant, the then-owner let the regulars wander into the kitchen to serve themselves or place their own orders. And back then he let everyone figure their own bill and go to the cash register themselves to make change. (The only day that policy bit him was when he loaded one register drawer with then-new Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, which everyone mistook for quarters.)
Uptown Butte is the largest National Historic Landmark in the United States. Uptown has 6,000 registered historic buildings, most of them still housing businesses or families. From the 10-story Finlen Hotel, restored to past elegance and still open, to the Copper King Mansion (built by copper magnate William A. Clark), to the Dumas Brothel (America’s longest continually operating house of ill repute which didn’t close until 1982), Butte’s buildings have mighty interesting stories to tell.
Recommended Stories For You
Go up the hill to the Speculator Mine Memorial and read the letters and diary entries that record the worst hard-rock mine disaster in the country’s history the day 160 men died in a mine fire. If all the frozen-in-time sights of old Butte aren’t enough, go inside to the World Museum of Mining for a deeper understanding.
And understand also that Butte is not just a museum piece. This is an intensely proud blue-collar town. Step into the M and M Cigar Store, a saloon and gambling parlor that’s still in business since the mining days and you’ll get some feel for the locals. Or stop at Gamers for breakfast and, for lunch, try to grab one of the 10 stools inside the tiny, original Pork Chop John’s Café. You’ll get a deep-fried pork-chop sandwich invented there back in the heyday. Anyplace you find a Butte citizen, it just takes one question about their town to get them fired up and swelled with pride.
Butte’s boomtown days ended about when the Speculator Mine caught fire. World War I was the peak, and Butte dwindled from that point on. The underground mines closed and an open pit mine, the Berkeley Pit, began growing, gobbling up the old ethnic neighborhoods.
But so much remains, Butte stands alone as the granddaddy of all Western mining towns. It survived even though it didn’t turn into a ski resort!
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Butte: 450 miles
Insider tip: Drop by for St. Patrick’s Day and you’ll find 30,000 revelers crammed into a five-by-four-square-block area of Uptown. Now that’s a party!