Some 45 years have come and gone and I am still here. I never wanted to leave this place. Children in my day and age- didn't have much say in matters like that. My mother and father did not run a democracy.
In the summer of 1969, while descending down the western slope of the Continental Divide, I got my first glimpse of Butte, Montana. I was 8 years old. It was love at first sight.
I can't really describe the immense feeling of hope we had as a family that summer. The excitement was tangible- like great things were about to happen. This feeling I think, is reserved for the young and adventurous. It is something that has only made brief appearances in my life, and now at age 54, most of my adventures and opportunities I think, are behind me. I don't think I'll ever feel the excitement I felt in the summer of '69.
We moved into a place near the top of Caledonia Street, just west of Excelsior St. I could hear the sounds of one or two headframes in the distance. These were giant black iron monoliths that used cables to hoist ore laden rock and miners in and out of underground shafts. The headframes made a strange "whirring" noise- caused mostly I think- by spooling cable. At first the sounds of the head frames and their occasional creakiness seemed foreboding. Eventually I got used to the noise. It wasn't going to last much longer anyway.The days of underground mining were coming to a close- new operations were moving above ground and into a pit that had already swallowed up a large portion of Butte.
Today, many of the headframes have been taken down. At one point, there were nearly 100 of them dotting the landscape. Now they have dwindled to 11 or 12. I pray they don't remove any more. I still wince every time there is a fire or some old and historic building collapses.
As a child, I viewed our residence as nothing more than a base camp. Everyday, I walked all over Butte. I remember every lot we played ball on, the tree I jumped out of which sent a nail through my foot, the path we took over the railroad tracks and across Western Av. on sleds in the winter time. I remember my friends' houses. I remember the fence I was straddling when some older girl gave me a hickey and my parents nearly had a heart attack when they saw it. I remember hitting my first (of only two) home runs on a field now named after my coach. I remember another field nearby where two of my friends got beaten up and pretty badly- by a neighborhood gang. It seemed like something was always happening in Butte. The bars were busy around the clock. Drunken miners everywhere.
I come back to Butte much like a pilgrimmage, 2 or 3 times a year. I've been doing this for decades. Very often I come by myself. I eat pork chop sandwiches, pastys, donuts from the Town Talk bakery. I stay at the Finlen Hotel. I can't even imagine staying in one of those boxlike, chain hotels down on the flats. The same employees have worked here at the Finlen for decades. The coffee is the same. The hotel is the same. The only thing that has changed over the years is some remodeling, mostly plumbing, in the rooms- and the elevators have been updated. They used to have push knobs on them which were very old and unique.
After a couple of years uptown, we moved down to the flats. So the whole extended town became my playground.
I learned to camp, to hunt, and to fish in Butte. I learned to play baseball, basketball, football, and golf. I rode motorcycles. I chewed tobacco, I drank a little, and I swore a lot. I learned that while all of those things can be bad- they weren't the end of the world. It was part of the living process wherein you discovered- who you are and who you might one day become. Most of us start making those choices when we are young. I think that happened to me in Butte.
In the summer of 1975, we moved away. The mine was shutting down and with it- the entire economy of Butte. You became one of two types of people. You either left looking for opportunities- or you stayed knowing that the economy and your livelihood weren't likely to get better any time soon. I admire the people who stayed. Our family left for Missoula and then on to Idaho.
So what is it about this place that keeps me coming back? What is it about Butte that cements the people that once lived here with the people who stayed behind? What common experience do we all share that has us fondly remembering Butte while so many others, outsiders mostly, seek to detract and diminish all things Butte?
For one hundred years, Butte was the American dream. Butte was a place of opportunity. This was a place where people from all over the world could come, scratch out a hard living, and live the American dream. It was also a place of great struggle. A place where the rich and elite took full advantage of laborers as a disposable class of people. This was the site of the gibralter of unionism. This is where workers came together and fought side by side for a decent wage with decent hours and a few safety enhancements while the Anaconda Company tried to sabotage those efforts for the sake of greed. There were clashes, strikes, murders, great tragedies, oppression. People and workers rallied. They could distinguish who was good and who was not- even across ethnic boundaries. People took care of each other and they supported each other. Despite all of the adversity, people here were grateful for what they had. Thousands of people died in these mines. The people of Butte have this common thread, this mutual history of shared sacrifice, these memories, and they haven't forgotten. It's like spending time in a foxhole and surviving the ordeal. Those are the ties that bind and you don't forget who was in the foxhole with you.
Historically speaking, Butte played a huge role in shaping America. Stock manipulations, claim jumping and bribing judges, the formation of unions, even a crooked copper king helped shape the fundamental way we elect U.S. Senators. In many respects, the history of Butte is the history of immigration and America.
I didn't even mention Evel Kneivel.
That's why I love it here. I stare at copper king mansions and decaying architecture. I wander about the remaining headframes, the Original, the Steward, Mountain Con, Anselmo, Orphan Girl. I go to the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine memorial where 168 miners died in 1917 just 6 weeks before the arrival of union organizer, Frank Little. Frank was abducted out of a rooming house, dragged behind a car on Anaconda Road, and hanged on a train trestle west of town by Anaconda company hit men. Sometimes I go to the two old cemeteries in Butte or up to the mining museum past the statue of the good copper king, the Irish man, Marcus Daly.
|This picture was taken before the statue was moved to Montana Tech|
History happened here. There is no other place like this anywhere and you can damn sure bet there will never be another place like it again.