History of Butte, Montana


© History Oasis
"Butte is a city where vice is rampant, but it's also a city where you can find anything you want. If you're looking for a good time, you're sure to find it in Butte."

—Anonymous Butte resident

Butte, Montana stands as one of the most iconic mining towns in American history, but its prodigious mineral wealth came at a grave price.

Behind Butte's rough-and-tumble legacy lies a darker history, marred by corporate exploitation, ethnic tensions, toxic pollution, and startling tragedy.

While the copper mines spawned economic prosperity, they also cultivated an environment ripe for corruption, vice, and environmental degradation.

Shining a light on some of the bleaker chapters in the city's biography—those profound stains that no triumphant lore can blot out.

Butte's is a history of dichotomies—promise and disappointment, rugged individualism and corporate control, sparkling wealth and poisoned streams.

Here, Iaim to probe Butte's shadows, recounting the calamities, injustices, hatreds, and unchecked ravages that will forever haunt this essential Montana metropolis. Butte, Montana’s history must be told in full.


The Granite Mountain Mine disaster
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The Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster of June 8, 1917 stands as one of the most tragic events in Montana's history.

When a fire erupted inside the mine that fateful morning, 168 brave souls lost their lives to the relentless onslaught of carbon monoxide produced by the raging subterranean inferno.

It was a crisp Friday morning when the day shift of 274 miners descended into the Speculator Mine, the largest silver producer in the North Butte Mining Company holdings.

Shortly before 9 am, a cable being lowered into the mine to replace burnt-out bulbs on the 2,400 foot level started a fire. Flames spread rapidly, fed by the wooden supports and oil-soaked timbers within the mine.

The fire produced lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide gas which rose through the many levels of underground workings.

Despite desperate efforts by surviving miners and rescue crews from neighboring mines, the toxic fumes overcame the trapped men with merciless efficiency.

Bodies were found gathered near shaft stations and bulkheads, many having tried in vain to find refuge or escape the mine. Tales of heroism emerged—miners who sacrificed themselves attempting to create barricades against the gas.

But the inferno's hellish grip could not be broken.

For days, the surface mouths of the Granite Mountain mine spewed a putrid stream of smoke.

It was a visible reminder of the torment unfolding in the stygian depths below.

When the fire was finally extinguished two months later, rescuers pulled out 168 bodies from the mine's poisonous tomb.

The Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster was, and still remains, the most deadly mining accident in Montana's history.


The Berkeley Pit
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The Berkeley Pit represents both the promise and peril of Butte's mining heyday.

This vast open pit copper mine was opened in 1955 by the Anaconda Mining Company, marking the beginning of Butte's large-scale pit mining era.

For over 25 years, the Berkeley Pit was a symbol of productivity and prosperity, with massive steam-shovels gouging out the earth to extract millions of tons of copper ore.

At the time, it was the largest truck-operated open pit copper mine in the United States.

However, the mine closed in 1982 due to diminished returns, leaving behind a toxic legacy.

With mining operations halted, groundwater pumped out of the Berkeley Pit was no longer replaced.

Over the following decades, the pit filled with water saturated with heavy metals and chemicals like arsenic, cadmium, and sulfuric acid leaching from the exposed rock.

Today, the Berkeley Pit contains some of the most contaminated water in North America, with acidity comparable to car battery acid.

The pit's toxic waters have created an ecological disaster that lays bare the environmental damage of Butte's unchecked mining operations.

Since 1995, an estimated 321 migratory birds have died at the Berkeley Pit after landing and ingesting or absorbing the toxic water.

Despite recovery efforts and deterrent systems, the deaths of unsuspecting geese, swallows, and ducks continue annually.

Remediation efforts and water treatment systems now work to contain the Berkeley Pit's harmful reach, but its noxious waters remain.


Prostitution on Mercury Street
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As a rugged mining town, Butte gained a notorious reputation for vice and misconduct during its nineteenth and early twentieth century boom years.

The telegraph line connected Butte to the outside world, bringing news of mining discoveries and investment opportunities.

But it also transmitted tales of Butte's bawdy red light districts, saloons, opium dens, and rampant gambling, cementing its wild reputation across the West.

Prostitution and gambling flourished, tolerated in the red light districts that catered to miners flush with cash after months of backbreaking labor.

One of the most infamous areas was Mercury Street, located between Galena and Arizona Streets, which became the central hub for indulgent revelry and paid pleasures.

By 1890, over 300 prostitutes worked in cribs and parlors along Mercury Street.

Madams like Bull Shirley, Little Ida, and Sally Stafford ran luxurious brothels offering refined entertainment and feminine companionship.

Meanwhile, modest crib girls worked on cramped partitioned cubicles along the street's wooden sidewalks.

On a Saturday night, miners would throng to Mercury Street's saloons, gambling halls, and brothels seeking to unwind and indulge in vice. Mercury Street gained a reputation across the West for its decadence and licentious character.

City leaders tolerated the rampant prostitution and gambling, recognizing it as an economic necessity that siphoned money from transient miners into the local economy.

However, rising public pressures led to occasional crackdowns, though city officials knew prostitution tied to the mining economy could never be eliminated entirely.

Reformers lamented the prominence of vice in Butte, fitting the archetype of a lawless, riotous mining camp.

At the height of its bawdy character in the 1890s, Mercury Street embodied the roughness, excess, and moral flexibility of Butte during its mining heyday. Its sinful legacy remains intertwined with Butte's past.


A riot in Butte, Montana
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The thriving mining operations of Butte attracted waves of immigrants in the early 1900s seeking work, including significant numbers of Finns, Serbians, Italians, Irish, and Chinese.

While united in the dangerous work of mining, tensions and prejudices inevitably emerged between these disparate ethnic groups competing for economic opportunity. This boiled over violently in the Finnish neighborhood of Finn Town on February 14, 1914.

Finn Town was a collection of boarding houses, businesses, saloons, and homes in the northeast part of Butte predominantly inhabited by Finnish miners and their families since the 1890s.

Serbian miners had begun infringing on the Finnish quarter, purchasing property and opening boarding houses and saloons. Drunken brawls between Finns and Serbians became commonplace in the contested neighborhood.

Tensions reached a breaking point on that February night when a Serbian man was shot by an unknown assailant.

Outraged Serbians flooded into Finn Town seeking vengeance.

A full-blown riot broke out as the Serbians ransacked Finnish homes and businesses. The mob violence left one Serbian man dead and others seriously wounded.

Order was finally restored, but the damage was done.

For years the bitter feud between Finns and Serbians simmered, symptomatic of the distrust and competition bred by industrial mining work in early 20th century Butte.

While eventually defused and diminished, the powder keg of ethnic tensions was clearly demonstrated by the violent Finn Town riot, leaving an indelible mark on Butte's contentious mining community.


the Anaconda Copper Mining Company operating in Butte, Montana
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The far-reaching grip of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company profoundly shaped Butte throughout the 20th century, leaving a complex legacy of prosperity and external corporate control.

Founded in 1881, Anaconda rose to become one of the largest copper mining companies in the world by the 1920s.

The "Company," as it was known, exerted immense influence over Butte, controlling much of the economy, politics, media, and labor.  

With ownership of key mines like the Berkeley Pit and Columbia Gardens, Anaconda's presence was inextricably tied to Butte's boom and bust cycles.

The Company infused money into the local economy via mining operations and wages.

However, Anaconda's puppeteering of Butte also bred deep resentment amongst residents and workers.

Labor strikes demonstrating against unsafe working conditions and unfair pay were often aggressively suppressed by Anaconda. The Company's expansion of open pit mining in the 1950s/60s led to the destruction of neighborhoods and community gathering places.

In the political sphere, Anaconda routinely hand-picked candidates sympathetic to the Company's interests, manipulatively keeping Butte under its thumb.

The media was also under Anaconda's sway—local newspapers did not dare print anything against the Company.

For decades, Anaconda Copper was Butte's proverbial shadow government.

Though the rise of labor unions and environmental conservation loosened the Company's grip in the late 1900s, Anaconda's indelible footprint on Butte was set long before, shaping the city's identity under the aegis of an all-powerful mining giant.


The polluted skies of Butte, Montana
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Butte's rise as a global mining mecca came at a grave environmental cost, scarred by rampant pollution from largely unregulated industrial operations.

As mining boomed in the late 1800s, thousands of tons of waste rock and tailings were dumped into Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork river, filling waterways with arsenic, heavy metals, and sulfuric acid.

Acrid smoke saturated the skies above Butte from the Anaconda Company's Washoe smelter which processed enormous quantities of copper ore.

The air hung heavy with sulfur dioxide and other toxic fumes spewing from the smelter's towering smokestack.

Meanwhile, underground, miners faced constant exposure to mineral particulates and noxious gasses.

Industrial-scale mining had transformed Butte into a poisoned environment.

Rates of respiratory disease soared as the city's air and water became some of the most polluted in America.

Miners suffered most acutely, with lung ailments like silicosis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and emphysema haunting generations of workers. The toxic legacy was visible in the blackened lungs of miners, whose health was sacrificed for productivity and profit.  

Through the 20th century, grassroots efforts gradually forced new environmental regulations and safety measures in the mines.

But for decades prior, the open pit mines, smelters, and waste dumps of the Butte mining industry operated unrestrained, engulfing the city in an omnipresent cloak of pollution that sickened its people.

The scars on Butte's land, air, and health reveal the true costs of its prolific yet toxic mining era.