New Blog!

If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Beautiful Butte-the Garden Spot of Montana

My brother Bob and I recently took a joyful, nostalgic romp through historic uptown   Butte, Montana. Back in the 1960's, the highlight of every summer vacation was our two-week visit to our grandparents in Butte. We lived in a suburban neighborhood of brand new ranch houses crowding up against alfalfa fields. It was idyllic in a 1960's America sort of way. Our grandparents lived in a gritty urban-feeling neighborhood of multi-story brick buildings and narrow alleys crowding up against open pit mines. We thought it was fabulous just because it was so different from home. Oh, and maybe because all our Irish Butte relatives spoiled us with gifts and outings and lots of attention. My mother always referred to her hometown as "Beautiful Butte" or "the garden spot of Montana." She was joking, but I didn't realize that until one of our neighbors back home burst out laughing when I repeated it. Our last visit had been in 1967, the year before my grandfather died and my grandmother left Butte to shuttle between her two daughters' houses.

As Bob and I drove into Butte, we saw that all the newer houses and businesses and most of the activity were down in "The Flats." But we were interested in "Uptown," the historic section built on a steep hill. The hill is known as "the richest hill on earth" because it's full of minerals and riddled with mines--some gold and silver, but mostly copper. Click here to read a short version of Butte's wild history.

From uptown, the streets roll away downhill in every direction.

 This one rolls away downhill to an open pit mine.

These old headframes dot the landscape. Each stands over a mine shaft and was used to hoist men, machines, and mules (yes, mules!) down to and up from the mines.

We headed uphill on Montana Street, looking for Granite Street where our grandparents' apartment had stood. Just as we approached the corner of Granite, church bells rang out. We both said, "Oh!" and turned to look at each other and smile. Those bells, from multiple churches, had rung throughout every day of our summer visits. I hadn't remembered that, but when I heard them there at the corner of Granite, memories flooded back.

We turned onto Granite, not sure what we'd find. Butte suffered numerous fires throughout uptown during the 1970's. Most were arson for the insurance money, or so everybody says. We'd heard that our grandparents' building was one of those that had burned.

Here's what we found...someone is currently rebuilding the fire-damaged building. It's the small, green building to the right, with the Carpenters Union Hall, in all its original glory, to the left. You can see some fire damage under the eaves on the top left corner.

Here it is in 1949. Our grandparents' apartment was the left half of the second floor. It must have been tiny, but it seemed big enough at the time. (All of these old photos come by way of my cousin Chris who dug them out of family archives at her mom's house and scanned them. Thanks, Chris!)

The green siding is quite a change. It used to have asphalt faux-brick shingle siding like this.

Here's Chris with Grandpa, sitting in the neighbor's doorway. The door on the left was ours.

 Today's view down Granite Street. 

Granite Street in 1949. Left to right are Grandma, my mother, my Aunt Mary Ellen, and Grandpa. 

It looked busier back then, and Bob and I both remembered it being busier in the 1960's, too. There's a section past the Carpenters Union Hall that is now a parking lot, because several buildings burned. One of those was the garage where Grandpa rented space for his car, which my other brother, John drove through the garage door when he was three years old.

 This headframe is only a block away from the apartment--the town just ends right there.

The courthouse is across the street from the apartment and we spent hours playing on the steps. Bob and I both remembered the courthouse steps as being much bigger.  John concurs about the size of the steps after viewing the photos.

 I remembered three levels of steps at least, separated by landings. More like the courthouse in New York that they always show on "Law and Order."

Here's Bob sliding down the bannister, a big pastime for us during our visits. This bannister also seems to be much shorter than I remember it. (Okay, I'm consulting a visitors' bureau brochure for information on historic buildings. The brochure says the courthouse was built in 1912, but it says 1910 on the front of the bannister. Hmmm. But whatever dates and history I throw in are coming from the "Copperway Walking Tours" brochure.)

 Looking at the old photos, it seems it was as much a family landmark then as now. Here's Chris posing with Grandpa on the steps.

And here are Chris's parents right after they got married inside the courthouse in 1942. Left to right are my mother Margaret Ann, Aunt Mary Ellen, Uncle Bill, and Bill's sister, Betty Ann. I guess in Butte in those days, nice Catholic girls used their middle names.

Bob is two years older than me, so his last visit was when he was 10 years old, while I was only 8. Also, Bob has an unusual, near-photographic memory and I don't. At all. So he remembered many more details of Butte and our visits there than I could. It was interesting to see what random things triggered memories for each of us. The smallest things triggered the strongest memories.

 We squeezed through the alley and into the dirt-packed yard behind the apartment (also much smaller than we remembered).

We ignored the "No Trespassing" sign--that doesn't apply to people revisiting childhood memories.  I saw these old windows...

...and the latch on the window triggered for me a vivid memory of opening these exact windows in the bathroom and looking out to see the clotheslines on pulleys suspended over the yard.

The current owners weren't there all weekend, but if they had been, I'd have knocked and tried to get inside and have a good look around.

Bob stopped in his tracks when he saw this window well in the alley. He used to hide down inside there--not scared of bugs, I guess.

 Here's my mother (right) hugging her little sister, Aunt Mary Ellen, in that same back yard in 1928. 

 Two alleys over, Bob's memory was triggered by this heavy-duty drain pipe...

 ...and this painted sign...

...and especially this gate at the end of the alley. He remembered them all and the memories were so powerful he just stopped in his tracks and laughed each time.

He used to hide behind the gate and watch people walking down Granite Street (back when it was busier). One day a woman walking by saw him and said, "What are you doing in there, little boy?" He told her, "I'm in jail!" And, of course, the gate looked a lot bigger to him, then. 

It was so much fun to see all of this with Bob because he remembered so much and he was so joyful with each memory as it struck. We wandered the back alleys of Butte laughing and telling stories. Here are a few of the things we saw...

 More of the asphalt faux-brick shingles.

 Grandpa working in a back alley somewhere--it looks like it could be the same building as in the picture above. He was an electrician who worked on the first electrical lines to go into Yellowstone Park. It looks as if he's cutting cables or conduits here.

Next, we cut through the old bus station (now a parking garage) and onto Broadway, and looked around on the streets of uptown.

In 1879, a fire destroyed the entire business district. Following this disaster, the city council passed a law requiring all uptown buildings be built of brick or stone. That's why Butte has so many still-standing historic buildings. But, ironically, there are now many more-recently-generated vacant lots caused by (arson) fire.

All over uptown we saw black marks and floor joists like these delineating where the missing burned buildings used to be.

One of the first things we found on Broadway was our Cousin Jack Sullivan's electrical shop. It was full of odds and ends and he always welcomed us in to hang around and get in the way. And we always got to choose one gift. One time I got a little copper tee-pee and John got a rabbit's foot. Bob always chose old electrical parts.

 His shop was on the left side of the space with the large windows trimmed in blue. It's a surveyors' supply shop now. Again, closed with no one around, so we couldn't go in. But we could see one of Jack's glass-fronted cabinets still in use inside and the original rough wood plank floor.

 We walked on up the block, and when we turned around, found this old sign for Jack's shop painted high on the side of the building.

Here's the proprietor, our second cousin, Jack Sullivan. He limped, because he'd had polio as a child. His wife Marie cooked wonderful tamales (which I thought were Irish until I was a teenager) and Cornish pasties.

Pasties, a kind of portable meat pie that miners used to carry in their lunches, are a Butte specialty. It's hard to find them anywhere else. So around noon, I started thinking about pasties and asked some locals where to find them. 

We ended up at Gamer's Cafe. I had a delicious pastie, rib-sticking enough for a 12-hour shift in the mines. Bob wasn't up for pasties and just had a burger and fries. For those of you who have no Cornishmen or miners in your family tree, pastie is pronounced with a short "a" (rhymes with "nasty") and has nothing to do with strippers.

Neither Bob nor I remembered Gamer's. But our cousin Chris did when she looked at the pictures. It's on the ground floor of a fabulous historic building, which started us off on our two-day walking tour of historic buildings, both restored and crumbling. You can take a trolley or bus historic tour, but we walked around with a brochure and crafted our own tour. We felt that commercial tour guides would likely not focus enough on our family history to provide us a satisfactory experience.

Home of Gamer's Cafe, the Curtis Music Hall, built in 1892.

Love the shamrocks! One of many Irish touches seen around Butte. But I somehow neglected to get a picture of the menacing plastic leprechaun leering down from the roof of Maloney's Bar.

As Bob pointed out, if you lived in Butte, you'd certainly want fire insurance.

Lions at the Silverbow County jail--modeled after lions bagged on an African safari by Theodore Roosevelt.

Built in 1907. (For my readers in the U.K. and India and Belgium and Italy--yes, here in western America, 1907 is historic!)

 This used to be Hennessy's Department Store, where we each got to choose one toy from the big basement toy department. And Grandma always bought me at least one dress. One key feature that's changed: the revolving door is gone. We loved going around and around in it until our mother ordered us to stop.

Both of my grandparents' funerals were held here, only half a block from the apartment they'd lived in since 1939.

Cousin Jack's shop was also less than a block from the apartment and Hennessy's was one block away. I remembered wandering great distances through this big gritty city, but it turns out our whole territory was contained within two city blocks! But they were gritty.

 Broadway Antiques-a sprawling suite of rooms filled with an astonishing array of almost anything you can imagine. See the little balcony on the corner? Lots of Butte buildings have these.

 The tile floor in Broadway Antiques.

The tin ceiling inside Broadway Antiques. Even in a mining town, it can't really be gold, can it?

  M&M Cigar Parlor, left from the days when Butte's drinking parlors sold cigars to miners coming off shift. Bob remembers buying candy there. This day, a motorcycle gang were having a few drinks.


 Another common feature: these borders of rough granite chunks.

 They're working on it!

  The Finlen Hotel, modeled after Manhattan's Astor Hotel, and now being restored by its current owners.

Another small thing that triggered our memories--these purple glass blocks set into the sidewalk to let light into rooms below. We walked onto this square in the sidewalk and both said, "Oh, I remember these!" I've never seen them anywhere but Butte.

Another interesting historic building, but about 50 years away time wise and a world away style wise from its neighbors! It looks to me as if it's filling a space left by one of the missing older buildings.

The Knights of Columbus--important in a Catholic town like Butte.

And the  Masonic Temple.

The  Mother Lode Theatre--still in use as a theater, and the last of several grand theaters in Butte.

The Copper King Mansion--built in 1884 by Copper King, W.A. Clark, one of the world's richest men during his lifetime. Through various business ventures, he accumulated $50 million by 1900. It's estimated that the cost of building this mansion, about $500,000 was only half a day's income for him.

 This was the first apartment building in Butte, and it was considered scandalous because it would undermine the family structure.

 They knew how to build a front porch back in 1900!

 And in the middle of all those big houses, an empty space with nothing left but foundation and burned out basement...

...and a backyard Madonna.

The house of W.A. Clark's oldest son. It was modeled after a French chateau he and his bride admired on their honeymoon. It's now used as a community art center.

  We also spent a few hours at the  World Museum of Mining, even farther up the hill.

The museum is housed at Montana Tech, which used to be known as the School  of Mines. My mother attended during World War II, along with about 10 other women who were majoring in geology or mining subjects. One of the other women was in a lab class with a male lab partner. After each experiment, she received a failing grade, while her male partner passed. When she consulted the professor, also the college president, he told her that the class was required for graduation, she could only fail a required class three times, and as long as he was president, no woman would ever graduate from the School of Mines! That propelled my mother off to Washington State University, where she went on to earn both a bachelor's and a master's degree in metallurgical engineering. I'm sure they don't do things like that at Montana Tech nowadays.

And like many American parents, she used to tell us about the long, steep hill she walked up, in deep snow, to reach the school. The hill is quite long and steep. But still, Bob and I agreed she was exaggerating.

 We went on the underground tour, in which a we walked only about 100 feet inside an old mine tunnel. The tour was interesting, though, even if it wasn't very far underground. The guide showed us several pieces of old equipment and talked about the work they used to do here.

The headframe from the old Orphan Girl Mine is a prominent feature.

Bob, the auto mechanic, was fascinated with the motors housed at the base of the headframe.

 Most of the museum is what you could call "un-curated." That is, there's an incredible array of old machinery lying around and you're free to wander around and look it over. No matter how obscure, Bob could figure out what each piece of equipment was for and how it must have worked.

This thing is a 1917 Fordson Snow Motor, an early version of a snowmobile. Those spiral-etched pontoons rotated and gripped the snow. 

 The tour guide passed by as we were looking at it and tipped us off to this great You-Tube video of a 1929 Snow Motor in action.

One last fond memory was the Columbia Gardens, an old amusement park built by Copper King W.A. Clark for the children of Butte. Our second cousin Margaret lived next to our grandparents and she spoiled us just as much as her brother, Jack did. Every time we visited, Margaret took us to the Columbia Gardens where we rode on the roller coaster and the airplane ride. The annual Columbia Gardens visit was so exciting, we'd start asking about it almost as soon as we arrived in Butte. The Gardens also had beautiful flower beds and old playground equipment. Our cousin Chris had already told us that Columbia Gardens was gone, subsumed by a still-active open pit mine. But a girl at the Butte Visitors' Center told us that some of the playground equipment had been moved to Clark Park down in the Flats.

 We found the park, and the playground equipment was there. We were so excited!

We had to try it out. Even though the sign says no adults. Seriously, would today's children think this "cowboy swing" was exciting enough? I would bet that at least 80% of the people playing on this equipment are over 50 years old and reliving childood memories. Or else, why would they need the sign?

And our last stop, the infamous Berkeley Pit. The Anaconda Company progressed from underground mining to open pit copper mining in 1955 with the Berkeley Pit. It incorporated several underground mines and swallowed several neighborhoods of Butte until it closed in 1982. After mining stopped, the pit filled partially with contaminated water and is now a toxic waste cleanup site. Bob could remember going to the overlook and watching the huge mine trucks driving along the terraces on the pit sides.

 Anaconda started digging the pit right at that headframe on the top ridge. 

 Part of the color in the water is reflections of the pit sides and the hills. But on the left, the chocolate-colored line is chemicals in the water. In the pretty morning light, it looked like chocolate syrup spreading into coffee.

While we were at the mining museum, we'd heard multiple gunshots and wondered what was going on. Firecrackers? Target practice? Miners' union riot? Leprechauns at Maloney's Bar? It turns out that an employee stays in a shack on the pit's banks and watches for birds. If birds land on the water, he fires shots in the air to scare them away before they can be poisoned.

 The adjacent Columbia Pit is still active. It's the one that undermined the Columbia Gardens.

And the waste from that pit is put into the Berkeley Pit at one end.

But if you're fond of Butte, it's all part of the landscape. I called my cousin Chris while we were standing on the edge of the Berkeley Pit and she was very excited to be getting a call from Butte and asked about the color of the water that morning.

Bob and I both wished we had more time to spend. But Bob has a job, so we were limited to a two-day visit. We had so much fun revisiting this wonderful part of our childhood. The only thing missing was our other brother, John. And it would have been nice to have Chris with us, too. And we really felt some regret that we had not thought to make this trip ten years ago when our mother could have enjoyed it with us.                

Good-bye, Butte! Next time, I won't wait 44 years!

Ivan Doig's novel, "Work Song," centers around Butte's mining history. Although it's not my favorite of his books (and he is one of my favorite authors), it's worth reading if you'd like to know more about Butte.

Work SongWork Song by Ivan Doig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disappointing after reading his other work, especially "Whistling Season," which is incredible. This one is just pretty good. He paints a vivid picture of Butte, Montana and the copper mining culture. But characters and especially plot are just a framework for talking about Butte.


  1. Wow Barb, great photo comparison of old and current photos! It's fascinating how your memory is stimulated by sights & sounds. I love those old tin ceilings (we have some here in Hailey). Sounds like a wonderful trip. Carol

  2. What a marvelous trip down memory lane for you and your brother. I love the photos! It looks like place I'd really like to see. Some of the old buildings are just amazing! Such a fun read!

  3. What a great "Now and Then" retrospective! I wish our family had such a treasure of such great old photos. Perhaps you should consider a book about Butte.

  4. I went to Butte once. . . .


  5. Can't believe I missed this - there must be gremlins in my Google Reader! Really enjoyed both the old and new photos. A few years ago when I was in Boston, my cousin and I went down to the South Shore and skulked around our grandparents' old house (sold in 1982 after my grandmother died.) Brought back some fabulous memories, kind of like you describe. My grandparents lived quite close to a Dunkin' Donuts (required in New England, I think) and you could often smell the donuts baking. Whenever I smell fresh donuts, I'm transported back immediately...great post and great photos!

  6. I was thinking the other day - you should go on Blurb and put together an eBook of your pictures of Africa. (or Montana) It costs almost nothing (all you have do is buy one copy of a softback version that you would probably want anyway). Then you could share it with your friends for just a few bucks! I just turned my two books into eBooks (just for the Hell of it). Just a thought. But if you do it. Please let me know. I want one.

  7. AC: I hadn't heard of Blurb before, but I went in and looked. They say they can put a blog into a book, so maybe I should try for the whole blog. Anyway, thanks for the tip, I'll have to investigate. So you must be happy with their quality of photo printing in the books?

  8. I lived in Butte and it's anything but Beautiful Butte-the Garden Spot of Montana wrong!

    1. Yes, that was the joke my mother (who lived there as a child) told me and my brothers--it was funny because it was so not true! Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder!