Butte, Montana: The Richest Hill on Earth
May 30, 2021
(photos and memories from August 1997 and May 2013)
Butte is the 5th largest city in the state of Montana with 33,000 residents, but it has the most colorful history of any town in that state. During its heyday in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Butte was one of the largest copper boomtowns in the West. Fortunes were made for many here, especially for owners of the copper mines. They were known as the Copper Kings.
Employment opportunities in the mines attracted surges of immigrants, particularly Irish immigrants. According to Wikipedia, as of 2017, Butte has the largest population of Irish Americans per capita of any city in the United States. I suppose that one descendent of those immigrants might be Rob O’Neill, a native of Butte, a Navy Seal, and the man who shot Osama bin Laden.
The city of Butte straddles the Continental Divide high in the Rockies and is positioned on the southwestern side of a large mass of exposed granite. The exposed granite mountain is riddled with rich veins of copper, gold, and silver ore which produced millions of dollars of precious metals during the last two centuries. Mineshafts criss-cross the earth deep below the town’s streets. A large open-pit copper mine, called the Berkeley Pit, was opened in 1955 nearly alongside the town. Although this open-pit ceased operations in 1982, several other mines still operate today extracting molybdenum ore among other metals.
The wealth extracted from the mines in the late 1800s and early 1900s also produced a wealth of ornate buildings and architecture in the city, and the bars, ethnic foods, and wild things that accompany prosperous mining towns.
Since the city is centered at the top of a hill, the “downtown” area is uphill from the working-class neighborhoods below it. For this reason, Butte’s “downtown” is known paradoxically as “Uptown” Butte.
Butte is the county seat of Silver Bow County, Montana. The county courthouse here was erected between 1910 and 1912 at the height of Butte’s mining boom.
The courthouse currently features a sculpture of a World War II “Jungle Fighter” at the front entrance.
Butte’s mines had amassed great wealth for the city by the time it came to build this courthouse. The city and county Fathers spent $750,000 here, an outrageously huge amount of money for 1910. (The ornate courthouse was used as National Guard barracks when mine labor violence provoked the imposition of martial law in 1917).
The interior of the courthouse is one of the most ornate in the United States featuring gold and copper inlays, marble floors, and mahogany doors.
The second-floor walls facing the central atrium feature murals of four pillars of civilization: History, Philosophy, Justice, and Geography. Above these murals are paintings of four presidents (respectively): Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and William McKinley. Below are photos of the murals and paintings:
Oddly, Wilson was included on these walls when the building was completed in 1912, the same year of his election. Also, I find it odd that Jefferson was left out considering that much of the state of Montana was included as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Here’s a view of Butte from a nearby highway overlook, and then a historical sign explaining the town’s development.
Finally, one last historical sign and one last statue:
All photos were taken by the author on May 7, 2013
A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.
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