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Butte, Montana

with Berkeley Pit & Granite Mountain Memorial

    
   - darkometer rating:  6 -
  
A historic mining town in Montana, USA, which not only has a rich history in extraction mining (gold and copper mainly), but has also seen the dark sides of this industry, such as the single largest disaster in hard rock mining in the USA, and, in more recent times, the rise of an acidic lake in a former copper open-cast mine, the infamous Berkeley Pit.   
More background info: Butte was a quintessential mining boom town of the Wild West and once the largest city in the Rocky Mountains. It takes its name from a large conical hill to the north-west. The town itself gained the epithet “richest hill on Earth” thanks to its mining operations of gold, silver and copper. 
  
During the boom years of the 19th century and the early 20th century, Butte became a multi-ethnic melting pot of cultures thanks to a large influx of immigrants. Hence there is still a significant legacy of Irish, Scandinavian, Serbian and Asian cultures, for instance. At its peak, the town had around 100,000 inhabitants (in 1920), which dwindled back to some 34,000 after mining declined in subsequent years, especially from the 1950s.  
  
The extraction industry made some of the winners super-rich, including “Copper King” William Clark who became one of the wealthiest men in the world … and showed it off, for instance by having his lavish mansion constructed right in the middle of Butte. This is now the Copper King Mansion B&B (see below). 
  
At the other end of the wealth scale Butte also had its rougher edges. It was (in)famous for its city-centre red-light district, including the Dumas Brothel, the longest running such establishment in the USA, which closed only in 1982, after 92 years of operation. It was later turned into a museum.   
  
Beer brewing was another big branch of business in Butte. But it wasn't all beer, women and dance, the miners also organized themselves in labour organizations, such as the Butte Miners' Union, in particular to counter the amassed power of the dominating Anaconda Mining Company. Butte became a socialist centre and important player in the Industrial Workers of the World organization (IWW). 
  
This led to strikes and several violent clashes too, the worst of which was the Anaconda Road Massacre, when company guards shot at strikers, killing one, in 1920. Earlier, IWW board member and anti-war campaigner Frank Little had been lynched by vigilantes on 1 August 1917 (the perpetrators were never named, let alone prosecuted). 
  
This incident happened in the wake of increased tensions between unions and the mining companies as well as yet more strikes, especially after what must have been Butte's darkest day of them all: 8 June 1917 when a fire broke out in the underground Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine and killed 168 miners.
  
Some of the miners only died two days after the fire broke out, having been able to barricade themselves in at bulwarks underground, waiting for rescue. Yet only 31 men survived the disaster. Many of those who died in the fire were so badly disfigured (basically cooked in the hot soot) that their bodies could not be identified. The tragedy still ranks as the worst disaster in hard rock mining in the history of the USA
  
After WWII, mining shifted from underground mines to open pit mining. For that purpose, whole suburban districts were demolished after their residents had been evicted, and the huge Berkeley Pit was opened in 1955. It became one of the largest such open pit copper mining operations in America. It is about 1800 feet (540 m) deep and a mile (1.6 km) across at its widest. 
  
However, it was soon outshone by copper mines like Chuquicamata in Chile and, as prices for the metal fell, the operation became increasingly unprofitable. Berkeley Pit was closed in 1982. The neighbouring open pit mine was also closed temporarily in 1983 but was later reopened and remains in operation today. 
  
The Berkeley Pit, however, was given up for good. As this also meant that the pumps that kept groundwater out of the deep hole in the ground was turned off, the pit began filling up with water
   
But this was not just ordinary water – due to the minerals in the ground and the pollution caused by the mining, it instead turned into a nasty toxic and highly acidic cocktail of heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. There is in fact so much copper dissolved in this cocktail that some of it has been mined straight from the water again. Amazingly, there are unique micro-organisms that manage to live in this extreme environment!
  
At times the acidic water/chemical cocktail in the pit assumes/assumed a strange reddish hue. But when I visited it in August 2015 it appeared just black. Whether that's due to any clean-up efforts or a normal fluctuation I do not know. 
  
A water treatment plant has been constructed, ready for when the water levels begin to pose a threat to the local aquifers. If the contaminated water in the pit was to flow back into these aquifers and surrounding waterways, it would be a major environmental disaster. This is to be prevented at all costs. (The website to refer to for the most relevant and most comprehensive information about this is pitwatch.org!)
  
The critical water level, i.e. when it reaches the level of the surrounding groundwater, is now expected to be reached in 2023, at the current rate of the level rising by about one foot (30 cm) a month. 
   
The site is managed as a federal Superfund environmental cleanup site. It is also dealing with all the already existing pollution associated with Butte's copper mining that goes far beyond the Berkeley Pit itself, including the vast tailings dam and pond to the north and the up to 150 mile (240 km) arsenic-contaminated Silver Bow Creek and Clark Fork river valleys towards Missoula.
  
  
What there is to see: The primary dark-tourism attraction here has to be viewing the Berkeley Pit. You can do so best from a dedicated viewpoint on the southern edge of the pit. For a small fee you can access a tunnel that has been drilled through the side of the pit to reach a viewing platform right above the toxic lake shore. And no need to worry: unless you jump in or drink from it, it won't harm you.
  
You obviously cannot really see the pollution as such either. When I was there in August 2015, the waters actually appeared quite normal, just very dark, almost black, and clear. I've seen photos of the lake in which the water is a spooky opaque reddish colour, though. Whether this is a thing of the past (through clean-up efforts and the mining of dissolved copper from the waters – see above) or whether the colour changes periodically, I cannot say. 
  
Anyway, there is a certain disconcerting thrill to be standing so near to such a major environmental problem spot. It's very rare that normal mortals are allowed so close viewing of such a site anywhere. 
   
At the viewing platform there is some commodification of the topic too, namely in the form of a short (ca. 5 minutes) recorded narration about the pit that runs in a loop, as well as a few information plaques about the area's mining history in general, and the Berkeley Pit in particular. This includes photos of the pit as it was before the water returned and how it slowly filled up. 
   
Beyond the Berkeley Pit you can see some of the current mining activity going on in the background, especially those huge monstrous trucks, the size of a small house, carrying load after load of ore and/or tailings. That's a pretty impressive sight to behold too.
  
At the Pit's visitor information centre at the entrance to the tunnel to the viewpoint you can purchase pieces of real copper and other mining-related gifts and souvenirs, and it also provides a little bit of information.
  
The other main dark site in Butte is the Granite Mountain Memorial that commemorates the USA's worst disaster in hard rock mining. This started on 8 June 1917, when the shaft of Granite Mountain and tunnels in Speculator Mine were set ablaze by an underground fire which claimed a total of 168 lives (mostly through asphyxiation). 
  
The memorial consists of a small, fenced in square just north of Butte on the upper slopes of the hill and has various plaques and some information panels. These tell the dramatic story of the spread of the underground fire and the subsequent rescue efforts, which eventually brought out at least some survivors who had held out for over 50 hours in bulwarks. But 168 miners never made it back alive. The most touching element here are the farewell notes written by miners trapped underground waiting for rescue. Yet more plaques are reproductions of excerpts from newspapers reporting the disaster at the time.
   
In addition to written texts there is also an audio station where you can press buttons to play recordings about e.g. survivor stories or community quotes.  
  
One plaque lists the names of all the victims, and along one wall on the side flags represent the various nationalities of the victims. A larger stone monument finally reminds us that this disaster was not the only one and that in total some “2,500 men lost their lives from mine-related causes” in Butte between 1870 and 1983. 
   
Evidence of mining is still all around. Not only can you see into the ongoing open-pit mining around Berkeley Pit from the hillside location of the memorial, there are also several headframes still standing around the edges of the city above former underground mine shafts
   
On the other side of town, on the western edge of the old “uptown” of Butte the World Museum of Mining celebrates this mining legacy through a mock-up of a Wild West frontier mining town of the 1880s, incorporating the original 100 foot (30m) headframe of the former Orphan Girl Mine, and various displays pertaining to the technological and social history of mining (with a focus on Butte, Montana, so not so much on the international scale that the museum's name suggests … a bit like the “World Series” in baseball). 
   
A highlight here is going on an underground mine tour. It apparently only goes as far as the first 65 feet (20m) of the once 2700 feet (900m) deep mine, but still … it is supposed to provide a fairly realistic impression. 
  
The sociological aspects, and especially their rowdier, dirtier, and socially darker sides, are remembered in the former Dumas Brothel, now a museum. It was the last one operating from Butte's once large and infamous red-light district when it closed in 1982 after 92 years of continuous operation.   
   
The story of Asian, especially Chinese, immigrants, who also had a major influence on Butte and the Rocky Mountains region, is the theme of the Mai Wah Museum on West Mercury Street.
  
The affluent side of mining is represented by the flamboyant former home of “Copper King” tycoon William Clark. His former mansion is now a sort of museum too, and you can go on tours of the lavishly decorated interior (involving, naturally, copper panels and such like). Moreover it is a B&B too, and you can even spend a night in the master bedroom where once one of the richest men in the world would have put his head down. The place is suitably named Copper King Mansion (see below for more details). 
  
Another relic of the immense riches that used to be made from mining is the gigantic vault/safe in the former Metals Bank, which is now home to a sports bar/restaurant. The safe's 30-ton steel door is now permanently open. And inside the safe is a wine cellar and a snug for private dining. Priceless.
   
Walking around in the old uptown (here “downtown” means the newer suburbs in the south,) you can see many other examples of interesting period architecture that, too, are evidence of how moneyed the place once was, though the hustle and bustle of the boom years has long departed. Now the atmosphere is quite provincial.
  
But I liked Butte – at least for a one night stopover it is certainly worth it. I should probably have spent a little more time there, actually, to be able to pay the mining museum a visit too, but unfortunately I didn't have time for that because I had to push on to Yellowstone and then the Dakotas (see Minuteman and Wounded Knee). 
   
  
Location: in the middle of provincial Montana, USA, some 120 miles (190 km) south-east of the next larger town, Missoula, and ca. 70 miles (110 km) south of the state capital Helena.  
  
Google maps locators: 
  
Access to Berkeley Pit viewing platform: [46.01125, -112.51815]
  
Granite Mountain Memorial: [46.0267, -112.5237]
  
Mining Museum: [46.0101, -112.5654]
  
Dumas Brothel: [46.0115, -112.5339]
  
Copper King Mansion: [46.01438, -112.54036]
  
Former Metals Bank with giant safe: [46.0125, -112.5359]
  
  
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track but not difficult to get to by car. Partly free (Granite Mountain Memorial), partly admission fees are charged (Berkeley Pit viewing platform and the museums). 
  
Details: To get to Butte you ideally have to have a car. There's a very small regional airport for limited domestic flights too, but even for just getting around town, you will want a vehicle.
  
Butte may be far out in the northern “Wild West” of Montana, but it is well connected by road, as it lies at the intersection of Interstate 90 and 15, providing fast routes east and west as well as south to Salt Lake City and beyond, or north to Helena. 
  
The Berkeley Pit can best be seen from its viewing platform. Access to this is through a tunnel leading right to the edge of the water. To get to this you have to pass through the small visitor information centre and shop. 
  
Admission: 2 USD
  
Opening Times: only seasonally between March/April and November, Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m., to 6 p.m. in summer (but presumably shorter in off-peak season.)
  
The Granite Mountain Memorial can be freely accessed at all times (well, during daylight hours).
  
The World Museum of Mining is open from 1 April to end of October, seven days a week between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. (last tickets sold at 4:30 p.m.). Underground mine tours take place Mondays to Saturdays at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 and 3 p.m. (times are subject to change). Admission: 8.50 USD, underground mining tour & museum: 17 USD (a few concessions apply, but you cannot just go on the tour without the museum). 
  
For the Dumas Brothel and Mai Wah Museum enquire locally (access seems to be more limited and changeable). 
  
The giant safe at the Metals Bank, now Metals sports bar, is in theory accessible during business hours for a quick look. It would be polite to combine this with at least a quick drink and/or snack.   
  
The Copper King Mansion offers residents at the B&B free participation in the guided tours of the house, usually on the first tour in the morning. In general, the guided tours run hourly, on the hour, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., but only in the summer season between May and end of September. Cost: 10 USD adults, 5 USD children; free for residents at the B&B (in summer). Room rates range from 105 USD (for the simpler Butler's Room with shared facilities) to 150 USD for the en-suite historic master bedroom – and given that you're sleeping in a museum and former luxury home of a multi-millionaire, that rate compares very favourably indeed to the rates you have to pay for B&Bs in historic buildings elsewhere in the USA!  
  
  
Time required: for just the Berkeley Pit viewing platform and the Granite Mountain Memorial an hour or so would suffice, but to also go to the museums and other sites you'll obviously need longer. The mining museum alone can apparently take hours, if not the better part of a whole day, going by their own website.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity. The closest other dark sites listed here are Yellowstone, WY, some 165 miles (265 km) to the south-east, and, even further away, Hanford, WA, over 450 miles (759 km) to the west.
  
See also under USA in general. 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Butte itself has its own non-dark sides, of course, although the overall feel is quite quirky and not very mainstream-touristy (which I consider a bonus). 
  
One rather odd sight near Butte, namely high atop the hillside to the east of the town and its mines, is the giant statue of Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90-foot (27m) high white statue of the Virgin Mary that was created by local works between 1979 and 1985. It is lit up at night. Getting to the base of the statue itself would require a long trek up sloping mountain tracks. It's best viewed from down in the town.  
  
But apart from this oddity and some pretty early to mid 19th century architecture in the old uptown of Butte, it's really the landscapes around the town that are the principal attraction out here. 
  
Montana actually has the reputation of being one of the most appealing states in the USA with regard to scenery and the great outdoors. I hardly scratched the surface of this when I was on my road trip through the north of the USA in August 2015, so I can neither confirm nor deny this, but from what I've seen just from the roads I am prepared to grant that reputation some credibility. 
 
  
  
 
  • Butte 01 - Berkeley Pit visitor centerButte 01 - Berkeley Pit visitor center
  • Butte 02 - tunnel to Berkeley Pit viewing platformButte 02 - tunnel to Berkeley Pit viewing platform
  • Butte 03 - Berkeley Pit viewing platformButte 03 - Berkeley Pit viewing platform
  • Butte 04 - Berkeley PitButte 04 - Berkeley Pit
  • Butte 05 - Berkeley PitButte 05 - Berkeley Pit
  • Butte 06 - historic images of the pit filling upButte 06 - historic images of the pit filling up
  • Butte 07 - water treatment plantButte 07 - water treatment plant
  • Butte 08 - so the water is no longer redButte 08 - so the water is no longer red
  • Butte 09 - active mineButte 09 - active mine
  • Butte 10 - big truck trafficButte 10 - big truck traffic
  • Butte 11 - mine shaftsButte 11 - mine shafts
  • Butte 12 - clearly a mining townButte 12 - clearly a mining town
  • Butte 13 - oversized Virgin Mary statueButte 13 - oversized Virgin Mary statue
  • Butte 14 - mining disaster memorialButte 14 - mining disaster memorial
  • Butte 15 - big disasterButte 15 - big disaster
  • Butte 16 - international victimsButte 16 - international victims
  • Butte 17 - commodificationButte 17 - commodification
  • Butte 18 - ongoing miningButte 18 - ongoing mining
  • Butte 19 - bed-and-breakfast-cum-museumButte 19 - bed-and-breakfast-cum-museum
  • Butte 20 - master bedroom at the Copper King MansionButte 20 - master bedroom at the Copper King Mansion
  • Butte 21 - antique chair and copperButte 21 - antique chair and copper
  • Butte 22 - streetButte 22 - street
  • Butte 23 - old architectureButte 23 - old architecture
  • Butte 24 - highrise architectureButte 24 - highrise architecture
  • Butte 25 - former metals bankButte 25 - former metals bank
  • Butte 26 - heavy metal vault doorButte 26 - heavy metal vault door
  • Butte 27 - the vault now housing wineButte 27 - the vault now housing wine
  
  
  
  
  

 

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