- History Articles
The gold rush in the early 1860s found people flocking to Butte. However the placer gold deposit quickly declined and the population of Butte with it. Miners turned inward and down, digging in search of the elusive metal instead of panning for it. In the process, a miner named Bill Farlin discovered silver ore. The silver rush breathed new vitality into Butte, but, frustratingly, once again the metal began to thin out. Instead, digging through the tunnels, the miners kept finding copper, at the time an utterly useless metal. Not long after the first major copper discoveries in Butte, Thomas Edison demonstrated how he could run an electric current through copper wire and light an entire city. Butte boomed once again. Over the next decades, the “Copper Kings”-William Andrews Clark, Marcus Daly, and F. Augustus Heinze-battled for control of Butte copper. Clark and Daly both sold out in 1900. Standard Oil became Butte's absentee landlord, robbing the city of the wealth and wealthy that had gathered around the Copper Kings. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) bought out Standard Oil and, in 1983, suspended mining in Butte.
As Montana's most industrialized city and, at one time, one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi, Butte has a character and history unique from other Montana communities. Immigrants from all over flocked to Butte, which has always given the city an eclectic, cosmopolitan feel. Early on, Butte developed a reputation for open, amoral living. Butte's historic Venus Alley was a thriving red light district for generations-in fact the Dumas, now a museum, operated as a bordello from 1890 to 1982, making it America's longest running house of prostitution. The battles of the Copper Kings, and later the supremacy of Anaconda Copper, corrupted every aspect of Montana life. The Kings and the company would pay extravagantly for anything they thought might help in their struggle. At one time every major newspaper, politician, and police force in the state was under the thumb of a Butte magnate.
In addition to savage capitalists, Butte developed a reputation as a breeding ground for unions. In fact, people often called Butte as the “Gibraltar of Unionism”. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, Butte unions stood strong against the tempests caused by capitalists. Given the industrial miner population, it should come as no surprise that the labor unions always pitted themselves against the company. In return, the company always opposed the unions with everything it had, culminating in the 1917 lynching of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) executive Frank Little, and the 1920 Anaconda Road Massacre of seventeen fleeing workers.
Today, Butte struggles with a history at once beautiful and tragic. The same forces that drew so many cultures together and shaped the town's unique character also pillaged the town, leaving empty gashes of earth where once there were thriving communities. Although Butte is still working through coming to terms with the environmental devastation caused by a century of mining, the town lives on, proud and resilient.