Hard Rock Mining: Digging In

“The City of Butte fairly bristles with smoke stacks of countless smelters, while the foundations of the City are honeycombed with mines.”

~ W.G. MacFarlane
Montana, the Famous Mines and Mining Camps of this Wonderful State, c. 1900

Within a few years, miners exhausted Montana's placer deposits. Still hungry for gold, they began tunneling into the hills. Quartz mining, unlike placer mining, requires heavy machinery, many men, and large investments. Gone were the days when someone with a shovel and a pan could strike it rich on a trickle of water. Now, deep shafts, supported by rough hewn timber, cut into the mountains. In addition, quartz mining called for stamp mills or smelters to extract the gold using a combination of pressure and chemicals. However, much of the ore also contained silver, copper, and zinc, complicating the process.

In Butte, even quartz mining yielded so little gold that no one could make a profit. However, the mines around Butte produced silver. Even more than silver, the hills around Butte contained copper, vital in the new development of electricity. Soon Butte became the mining capital of Montana, far outstripping Helena and other quartz mine sites. By 1898, Butte supplied forty one percent of the world's copper, and the Anaconda smelter was the largest in the world. At its peak, over two hundred mines riddled the ground around Butte, and legend claims that nearby Helena boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the U.S., many of them rich off of the copper mines of Butte. By that time, only Butte retained its mining glory, many of the other mining towns had moved on to other industries or died.

In Butte, luck ran out before the copper. In 1893, the price of silver dropped, but Butte rode the copper wave well into the next century. Then bottom fell out of the copper market in the 1920s. The Atlantic Richfield Company-which owned all the mines in Butte-continued to scratch copper out of the Butte hill for most of the twentieth century, but the city's prime was past, Butte never regained its former glory.

In recent years, the legacy of mining in Montana has come under hot dispute. It brought enormous wealth to the state, but the techniques, whether placer or quartz, did much harm to the environment. The extractive techniques used in Butte and Anaconda released huge amounts of toxins and heavy metals into the environment, damaging the ground water and streams around Butte. However, with careful attention, the area is being restored once again to a healthy, beautiful environment.

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