Butte, Montana is an interesting place. In its glory days it was on par with New York and San Francisco and now it is home to one of the largest superfund sites. It has a crazy mining history and beautiful historic building district begging for someone to save it. Once a year it hosts the Montana Folk Festival. My friend K and I had never been to Butte, but had been told time and time again we needed to visit it just once. So the weekend of the festival we packed a car and went on a little adventure.
We started with and underground tour of the historic uptown. We learned all kinds of interesting facts about Butte, here are a few that I remember weeks later:
- it had electricity five years before New York
- it had over 100,000 people living there in the 1920’s and had the second largest red district in the US
- It had an “underground city.” Below street level was a second sidewalk with store fronts all along it. Most of these have been filled in sadly. You can see find areas of glass block in the existing sidewalk, it was used to get light down to the lower level.
- the prison was open until the 1970’s where it was finally shut down by the Federal government and deemed a dungeon
- There are hundreds of miles of mining tunnels under the city. This is an amazing graphic representation.
It was about an hour and a half tour that took us down to one of the old store fronts that first a shoe store and then a barber shop.
Graffiti in the barbershop
We then went back above ground to the city’s first skyscraper and another building that was the sister hotel to New York’s Waldorf Hotel. My little brain was going crazy with all the detail and buildings that were there that were just empty and all the things you could do with those buildings if you had the population to support them again. It’s amazing.
The Finlen Hotel, complete with copper railing
Anyway, we continued to the jail, also below ground. It was in operation until the 1970’s and had many tripping features designed in to make sure no one going in came out unbruised. The stories of corrupt police made you cringe a bit as I was the tour guest picked to sit in the interrogation chair. Hands and feet tied down, in the dark with an old salon hair dryer over your head (what was it for? not sure…) in a basement is no where I care to end up again.
Metal beds below steam pipes
Interrogation chair- photo by K
After the jail, we crossed the ally to a forgotten speak easy that was found in 2004. It had a door in the bathroom so that the city mayor and police chief could sneak out when the fed arrived. The flooring and walls were beautiful stone with a heavy wooden bar. I think K was probably ready to kill me with all my architecture talk and picture taking.
Our friend, Dusty, was heading through town and so we headed to a coffee shop to meet him called the Hummingbird. To be fair, we headed to said cafe because the yelp reviews said the food was good, but people kept complaining about the staff’s “hipster attitude.” We needed to see what this meant in Butte terms and we are still unsure. Was it a place that would probably be more at home in Bozeman? A little hippy and alternative in style? Yes. It was delightful and delicious and the staff was perfectly pleasant. We enjoyed our lunch and returned the next day for coffee on our way out of town.
After this we went to check out the music. There were several stages set up all over uptown as well as vendors. We would stop at one, listen for a bit and head on to the next. The best stage was the main stage or “Original Stage” set up under a headframe near the top of the hill.
Surrounding it were old mining buildings you could go in and see all the equipment that was used. Pretty cool. I will say that the music was fine, but none of it really wowed us. This may be because none of us are super into folk music, but I was kind of excited for a Cajun band that was playing and they were not as energetic or as exciting as I expected. It was still fun to hang out on the hill side and watch all the different people.
We are still not sure what Dusty is doing here.
K and I were staying the night, continuing our adventure the next day in another mining town. From the way people spoke of the festival, we didn’t think we would be able to get a camp site at the park near by, but we had no trouble at all. We could hear the last of the music drifting down the hill as we hung out in our tent and watched Our Lady of the Rockies light up. We wanted to hike up or drive up to it, but the only way is on a 3 hour bus tour. No thank you.
That little light on the top of the hill is the statue. It’s the 3rd largest in the US and was lifted in place by helicopter in sections.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Cafe at Park & Main. We split a huge caramel roll while we waited for our egg dishes. All was delicious and we were able to sit outside, though the weather was not fully cooperating that morning.
We wanted to try and do the underground mining tour as well at the World Museum of Mining but the morning tour we could make was full. We went the the museum anyway.
And once we were past the bizarre doll collection, we we fascinated by the replicated town and the Orphan Girl mining yard. There are thousand of artifacts all over and you can just walk pretty much where ever. They have installed a stair on the headframe so you can walk up the top and see the old elevator that brought the ore and miner up and down. It was another day of sensory overload for me, but I still want to go back and take the underground mine tour as well.
Actual equipment size, not miniatures
Long tunnel to the pit
The last thing we did before heading out of town was check out the Berkeley Pit.
Most of the mining in Butte was underground until the 1950’s. The Berkeley Pit was opened in 1955 and was in operation until the 1980’s. It is a huge hole in the earth, around one mile by a half mile wide and 1700 feet deep. At that time they stopped pumping the water away from the pit and let it fill. This water is toxic due to all the heavy metals and chemicals that have leached out from the rock. It’s a massive superfund that will eventually reach the level of natural ground water and start to pump it’s toxic water into the ground water instead of vice versa. It’s amazing the kind of damage we can inflict on the earth that eventually comes back to harm us.
Butte is a very interesting place. Although, if the festival had not been in full swing, I don’t think we would have hung out for as long as we did. You could easily do it as a day trip. It was a sensory overload for me both days though. Not sure I could do both the underground uptown tour and mining tour in one day. But I’m not normal, so most people would probably love it all in one go. I highly recommend stopping to check it out instead of blowing right past on the interstate if you have the time.