Butte has one of the most interesting built environments in the west. Butte was built, literally, on top of underground copper mines. The head frames of those mines are scattered throughout the old section of town. Butte was built in a rush which lasted from the 1880s to around 1910. Butte's population today is almost the same size as it was in 1900, about 30,000. Butte's current population continues to inhabit and use hundred or more years old structures to a degree that is unusual in the west. Because most of the central core of Butte was built before the automobile age, it has greater density and seems much more urban than similar sized cities. Butte's remarkable state of preservation was threatened from the 1950s to the 1970s. The rich copper ore was largely exhausted in Butte's underground mines by the 1950s. Anaconda Corporation, the dominant mining firm in Montana, decided to switch to open pit mining methods to extract the last of the copper from the deposit under Butte. But Butte had been built directly on top of the deposit so open pit mining would require relocating and demolishing large portions of the city. The pit Anaconda started exists today as the Berkeley Pit, a huge hole in the ground on the northeast side of downtown. Several neighborhoods were demolished, their residents relocated, when the Berkeley pit was dug. Anaconda tried to expand the pit further west and wanted to mine, essentially, the entire area beneath downtown Butte. Butte residents fought the mine expansion. Buildings that stood in the way were torched in the middle of the night. In 1977, the oil company, ARCO, purchased Anaconda which led to the shuttering of Anaconda's smelter in nearby Anaconda Montana. The change in ownership slowed the expansion of the Berkeley Pit even more than local opposition. Mining at the pit stopped entirely in 1983. The pit has since filled with water so toxic that migrating birds have died by the thousands from landing in the water. Mining has resumed on a smaller scale at the site. The active mine is on the opposite side of the pit from downtown Butte. The screen capture from Google Satellite below shows the Berkeley Pit and most of Butte.
The Berkeley Pit and downtown Butte Montana
Butte has a great downtown though it's a little empty. It still functions as a the commercial center for large section of south west Montana so there is a lot more activity in Butte than one would find in a typical town its size. Butte also has really interesting residential architecture. Turn of the century miner's cottages and two and four flats are scattered throughout its older neighborhoods. Several secondary commercial districts developed outside of downtown as separate towns around more productive mines and smelters. Centerville/Walkerville, just north of downtown developed in an area where mining activity was most intense. A small district on Utah Avenue developed south of downtown near rail centered industries and smelters. Almost all of the copper smelting in Butte was moved to nearby Anaconda in the late 1800s to escape the congestion around the mines and keep the toxic smelter smoke away from the population in Butte. Butte was one of the centers of organizing that gave birth to the Western Federation of Miners as well as the IWW. That radical spirit might have lived on in some of the locals who prevented Anaconda Corp.. from swallowing the whole town. Some of the former mining district has been developed to accommodate visitors.
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