In our travels, we try not to favor one place over another, but there will always be exceptions. Butte Montana holds that distinction for me. Arriving late in the evening, as we turned east into town, we were presented with a most spectacular sight. Sitting on the continental divide, 3500 feet above us, and 8500 feet above sea level, was the 90 foot tall “Our Lady of the Rockies” statue. It is the result of a magnificent human determination which saw a dream, grow into 6 years of grueling effort by local workers. These individuals produced the money, land, and an army of faithful and devoted volunteers, who blasted a road to the top of the Rockies, so that others might understand the beauty of this land, and behold the view of Butte below. Although it was created in the likeness of Mary, Mother of Jesus, it is entirely nondenominational. The project began on December 29, 1979. Men and women in all walks of life and almost every religion worked to pave the way for the statue. The base of the statue was poured with 400 tons of concrete in September of 1985. With a spiritual energy which at times seemed to have no bounds. Political, religious and legal restraints were swept aside, and on December 17, 1985, supported by the U.S. Army Reserve unit at Butte, and the Montana National Guard, a CH-54 Sikorsky Sky Crane helicopter from the Nevada Air National Guard, lifted the first of the four sections to be delivered to this otherwise unreachable mount. As thousands gathered to watch, at 4:07pm, on December 20, 1985, the head piece was placed in its final position overlooking a city that personified the gusto, and strength of a truly blended nation. There is a center depicting in detail the efforts of those involved at 434 North Main St. Butte’s history goes back to the territorial gold rush of the 1860’s. Prospectors and ranchers claimed the land from it’s Indian inhabitants to create a mining town of great proportion. The town swelled and shrank as each mineral played out. With the gold gone, the population in 1870 was around 240 people. This was not to last, as the land was rich in minerals, and investors like William Clark and Andrew Davis arrived to extract the various minerals in quantity, using new mining techniques, making them Montana’s first millionaires. William Clark went on to become a Montana Senator and build a mansion called the Copper King Mansion. Soon the boom days were back, and by 1880’s, thousands of miners, their families, and those who could make a living otherwise had flocked to this rough and tumble town. In time, Butte would brag of being the only town in America that was a mile high and a mile deep, as shaft after shaft was dug into the earth until the entire area was a honeycomb maze of tunnels. By 1980, an estimated 22 Billion dollars in minerals had been extracted. With most mines working three shifts, the town never slept. Drinking, gambling, and of course, ladies of the night, were everywhere. A thriving red light district spread out along Mercury street and Venus Alley. The Dumas house, was built as a brothel in 1890 and ran continuously until 1982, making it the longest running house of prostitution in America. It is the last remaining example of Victorian brothel architecture in this country. It had 43 rooms and ran three shifts of girls for the miners on different shifts. The “ladies” would sit in the windows, located along the inside hallways, while the “gentlemen” walked by and window- shopped. Ruby Garret was the Dumas’ last madame from 1971 to 1982 when it closed, for good, having serviced over one million customers. It was ready for demolition when in 1990 Ruby met Rudy Giecek and sold him the building with the stipulation that he restore it as closely as possible to it’s original state. Rudy has restored most of it, and has created a museum with an antique store on the first floor. When the project became too much for Rudy, he enlisted the aid of (ISWFACE), the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education, who are in the process of purchasing the building for their cultural center. The city also has a colorful history in many other area. Minors dissatisfied with the share of the profits they were getting, organized and in 1878 formed Local No. 1 of the Western Federation of Miners. This was the beginning of an exciting and often violent relationship with the Amalgamated Copper Mining Co., who by now had bought up most of the other mines. In 1955 the Anaconda Co. who held large interests in the mines, abandoned underground mining for the less labor intensive open pit method. The Berkeley pit, started in 1955 and closed in 1982, along with others, changed the face of Butte. Gone forever were the homes, boarding houses and places of entertainment, as the open pits grew, swallowing up the land. Berkeley Pit, being the largest, struck water, and began to fill. It’s waters are so toxic, they cannot be allowed to flow over the top and into the streams around Butte. As of yet, no solution has been found to prevent this.
This is but a small sampling of what is to be found in this most unusual and diversified town where mining still goes on. High on a hill behind the Montana College of Mineral Sciences and Technology is the Mineral Museum and the 12 acre mining camp and museum. In order to get a real overall look at the city along with an informative tour don’t miss taking the trolley that leaves from Butte’s information center several times daily.
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