On Tuesday of this week, I traveled by high speed Elantra to Butte, Montana. I go there a few times a year to eat Cornish pasties, Pork Chop sandwiches, and other assorted delicacies like pastries from the Town Talk bakery. (I am currently on day 3 of my once a year Atkins diet) We always gamble a little in Butte and I think I beat them out of 30 bucks.
I stay at the old Finlen Hotel in uptown Butte. I wouldn't have it any other way. The city has an emotional claim on me and the Finlen is very much a part of that.
There is an adjective residents use to describe themselves. It's called Butte tough and I am going to try and describe what that means. I think that unless you have lived there- you don't really understand what that means.
As a child, I remember this old gentleman on Platinum St. who used to pull quarters out of our ears and give them to us. He was always well dressed and just strolled along. I remember the Mencarelli's house- I had my first drink there when I was 11. I stopped to watch a kids baseball game last week at Scown field. The kids were the same age as I was back when I played at that un named field in the shadows of the Anselmo head frame. Scown field was where I hit my first home run- and Mr. Scown was my coach. At one of the neighborhood bars last week, I watched 5 old timers shaking dice, drinking beer and swilling shots one afternoon. There was a time when I envisioned that type of future for myself.
When I was a kid growing up in Butte, 40 below temperatures were pretty common and usually happened at least once or twice a year. Winter seemingly lasts forever here- due in large part to the fact that Butte lies at the western foot of the Continental Divide. The mine was still in full swing in the late 60's and early 70's when I was growing up. The uptown part of Butte is filled with late 19th century architecture and homes. The old part of town is built on very steep terrain with winding, crazy streets that no city planner could even imagine. Some of the streets are so bad- that they are impassable and potholes lurk everywhere. Streets get far worse the higher up you drive into Walkerville. The old part of Butte boasts large brick homes and mansions. Further up the hill- the little suburb of Walkerville didn't fare as well. The only way to describe Walkerville is that it is kind of a shanty town with no shortage of rusting junk laying about. The original residents of Walkerville were all immigrant miners- too poor to build homes out of brick so they had to settle for little wood houses. Houses that many simply built themselves. They walked out their front doors, maybe a quarter mile, to work in the mines each day.
If Butte is tough, Walkerville is tougher. Here's a decent blog post that I found with some accompanying pictures- pictures which capture a little bit of the flavor of the place. http://jonjostcomingtoterms.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/settings-walkerville-and-butte/
The dark side of Butte was that it was a giant mining camp with thousands of poorly educated miners from all over the world. Crime and corruption were rampant. The murder and violent crime rates were once the highest in the nation and the theft and arson rates might not have been far behind. There were shootings, bombings, and fights. Everyone it seemed- engaged in fights. Gambling and prostitution were done out in the open.
They once called Butte the Gibralter of unionism. Even the butchers and barbers had unions. Unionism spawned all kinds of work stoppages, mayhem, and murder over the years. http://www.butteamerica.com/labor.htm
Very often as a kid growing up in Butte and sometimes as an adult in Boise- I found myself defending Butte's honor. Some Montanans like to call Butte the armpit of the world or simply refer to it as Butt, Montana. Oh... how I got tired of hearing that over and over. I still don't like it and every once in awhile- I let some would be smart ass have a taste of their own medicine.
So what's it like to be Butte tough? Butte tough is about being there. It's about surviving horrible mine conditions, decades of calamities, all kinds of crime and shootings, brutal winters, and seasonal depression. It's about striking (and having no income) against a cutthroat company who thought nothing of manipulating and plundering the working class, infiltrating them with Pinkerton spies, and killing at least 2500 of them. It's about crippling disease. It's about living in houses that always need repairs and driving on streets that the lack of a tax base has all but forgotten. It's about cursed earth- working among some of the worst soil erosion on the planet, toxic dust, and a pit filled with water so acidic that it can obliterate an iron train rail in two weeks. It's about being abandoned by your government when you desperately need clean up jobs for a Superfund site which one day- will have to be cleansed. It's about disease, alcoholism, drug abuse, an abnormally high suicide rate, and 10 dollar an hour jobs if you can land one. But mostly, being Butte tough is about enduring.
And despite the dark side- I love Butte. I love the architecture, the history, the heroism, and the spirit of those who stayed on long after the mine closed. This was their home- good times or bad. I love the people who share the common bonds of what might be described as a desperate life. I love the 100 year old beer and cigarette ads painted on the brick walls of buildings in uptown. I love the peeling paint, the wrought iron fences, the concrete gargoyles and lions adorning those structures. I love copper. I love the food, the crazy streets, and the granite curbs. I love the spirit of people who came came here to find their piece of the American dream. I love those giant black head frames and all the tragedy and greed they represent. I often wish that people could have experienced this place like I did once- because I know- they'll never do this again.
You should see Butte if you ever get the chance.