Saturday, April 18, 2015

In the Shadows of Headframes

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.

That's why I am here and that's why I keep coming back.

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 are behind me. I don't think I'll ever feel the same excitement that 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 scary and foreboding. Eventually I got used to the noise. Those noises weren'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 the Berkeley Pit which 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 down 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. (Scown field) 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, pasties, donuts from the Town Talk bakery. I can spell and pronounce povitica and I love it. 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. I like them. 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 living uptown, we moved down to the flats. So the whole extended city of Butte 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 landed my first job here. 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 were forced to become 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 entrepreneur and miner himself, Marcus Daly.

Statue of Marcus Daly, pioneer miner, Butte, Montana
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-ever again.

Here's a goofy video taken by two guys traveling thru Butte. It's fairly recent and it will give you a decent look at a small slice of Butte. At the 4:57 mark, they are passing the Finlen Hotel (and the Cavalier Lounge) on Broadway at Wyoming.




IRISH said...

Thanks for the morning read my friend :-)

Fredd said...

They say you can never go home again. Looks like 'they' were wrong in your case.

My father grew up on a farm in Medicine Lake, MT, left for the Pacific Northwest after he served in WWII and never went back. Of course, Medicine Lake is not Butte.

Brian said...

@Fredd...that saying I think is mostly true except here in Butte. I often think that the people who lived here once would come back if they could just recapture the same old magic.

Having lived here in it's heyday- everything else just sort of pales by comparison.

Unfortunately, those days aren't coming back.


Anonymous said...

Ahhh, the days before 'financial engineering, and fraud science' took off.

Ted Richards said...

I'm I was born in Butte moved out in 81 I too always stay at the Finland hotel when I visit 5 or 6 times per year.

Brian said...

Thanks for swinging by Ted...I knew some Richards' in Butte.


Anonymous said...

Dave here,

I think we have had this discussion before, but Youngstown, Ohio, where I grew up is a similar place in character and economic plight. It has the same hold on me that Butte does for you, so I get it. I lived there 18 years and I feel guilty sometimes, feeling I should have went back and helped the place instead of myself. The working stiffs of the steel mills and the sounds of trains consume my thoughts as I get older and time passes rapidly.

Brian said...

Hi Dave. Any time I hear anyone say they are from Youngstown- I think of you.

My problem is that I just don't want to do the winters. Maybe a summer home in Butte and a winter home in Tucson.

Anonymous said...

One of the best friends in my life grew up in Butte and loved it. I tried nw Montana for about a year and passed through Butte all the time to and fro from Colorado on that interstate-it sure looked wore out, I never did stop though and check it out. It still looked very victorian, kinda like some of the small towns west of Denver in the mountains.

He used to tell me the fishing was unbeatable and he would know that.

Brian said...

We had 5 fantastic blue stream fisheries including the Beaverhead, the Bighole River, the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin (Three Forks) a fantastic limit out creek (Divide Creek)and some great lake fishing- all within an hour.

I would say the best fishing in the US- excluding Alaska- of course.

It wasn't well known as a kid. It surely is now. I went to the boat ramp in Melrose on the Big Hole- it was packed last summer- middle of the week.