26 October 2009

Balancing Environmental Cleanup with Historic Preservation in Butte, Montana

[note: click on images to enlarge]

Butte America, the world's largest supplier of copper during World War One, is today at the headwaters of the United States' largest Superfund site:

A century of copper mining and smelting produced extensive pollution, but the wealth also built a historic area that is unusually rich for a remote, small city (population peaked at more than 60,000, and today is about 35,000) in the northern Rocky Mountains. The historic district includes thousands of "contributing properties." Some are well maintained, classic fin de si├Ęcle homes like this:

While others are a bit more, ah, neglected:

Historic and diverse as they are, it's not homes alone that make Butte architecturally distinct. It's the industrial landscape, dotted with mining headframes like this one (the Travona) that welcomes you at the exit from Interstate-90 (big "oops" on the ability to read the full spelling):

Today, it seems, we seldom think much about the industrial landscape of old, smokestack America, or of the men who toiled in that economy. But in the 1920s through 1940s, great artists such as Louis Lozowick painted industrial landscapes and workers as symbols of America's might, from the steelworks of Pittsburgh to the mines of Butte, Montana (from US Library of Congress collection):

At the federal level, a number of laws laid foundations for both historic preservation and environmental cleanup in Butte. These played out locally thanks to the amazing activism of grassroots groups such as the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee and the Butte Citizens for Preservation & Revitalization. After the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) began abandoning underground mining with the opening of the Berkeley Pit surface mine in 1955, traditional neighborhoods were razed to expand the pit. Scenes like this hardened citizens' opposition to the company and garnered support for historic preservation:

Industrial structures as well as homes and churches meant a lot to local residents. Headframes lifted ore from the ground and moved men, mules, and machinery up and down the shaft (Anselmo mine pictured):

Many of them sit in the midst of neighborhoods, serving as a constant reminder of the city's great and tragic past:

Known as "gallows frames" in the local vernacular, these structures also serve as monuments to the dead. Over the years, there were more than 2,300 mine-related deaths in Butte:

Told by an Arco executive (Arco merged with the ACM in 1977) that the company was going to take down the gallows frames, cut them up, and sell them for scrap, retired ACM employee John T. Shea famously replied, "You take down the first one, you'll hang from the second one."--a wonderful phrase with allusions to the "gallows" nature of headrames, traditional union resistance to bad company policy, and the infamous hanging of labor activist Frank Little in 1917.

East of Walkerville, on the hill above Butte, is Granite Mountain. The barren, arsenic & heavy metals contaminated, 350-acre area will be preserved as an authentic mining landscape:

It drains to the Berkeley Pit. The pit is a "waste left in place" Superfund remedy and  the water must be  treated forever: pollution from Granite Mountain will not spread to the rest of the environment. As a memorial area, it serves as a tribute to a violent and dangerous past, where 164 miners perished in a single disaster in 1917:

All history is local. Historic preservation was a way for Butte residents to resist the ACM's and later Arco's efforts to erase history. Citizens' mistrust and antagonism was based on a history of labor strife and examples such as the Berkeley Pit destroying neighborhoods and a long history of company deceipt.

Though residents have a strong historical sense of place as a mining city, “Butte is only 15 minutes from Montana." Since at least the 1970s, there has been strong local activism to restore the environment of the upper Clark Fork River basin and to protect against health hazards.

"Butte America" has found a pragmatic balance between environmental cleanup and historic preservation.  As a practical matter, $1 billion in environmental cleanup has largely replaced mining jobs in what Governor Schweitzer calls "the restoration economy." As economic development, historical tourism has yet to live up to the high hopes some have for it.

This may be in part because historical interpretation at various sites in Butte tends to be lacking. While exhibits tell the tale of industrial might, production of wealth, and human sacrifice, they tell a simple and uncontested story. By largely ignoring labor issues, environmental damages, and the development of a restoration economy, Butte fails to generate interest among history-minded tourists that desire a fuller story about that “little stage where the history of America played” (phrase by Edwin Dobb).


Eric said...

Thanks for this post. Your blog is interesting and well worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

"Professor Pat," this ties things together pretty well. I love that view of "Butt" coming into uptown always makes me smile. I'll buy you one at the Quarry and you can tell me how leaving mine waste all over town is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Hi, there: I might want to use a brief passage from your blog in my next book, but you don't reveal your name on your blog page.
Would you mind sending it to storm@resolutionfund.com?
Thanks! - Storm

Judy said...

There is so much history that we simply don't know anything about! I knew mining was dangerous work, and there was environmental damage from it, but you are expanding that for me! Thank you!!

troutbirder said...

Very well written. A fascinating, if tragic, story indeed. Thanks for the history lesson!

Carol said...

So much history is there...so little is known...Still...those beautiful mountains remain....

Maria said...

ER, you always give us much to think ...

Oh that church steeple~
The people who labored and sacrificed- even their lives~
Those that worked hard to build Butte and those that preserve its history~

I visited the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization site... I think it's so wonderful people are doing this work! So many of the buildings and churches in my hometown were built with human hands... foundations dug with shovels... not machinery.
Definitely worth preserving these beautiful places that tell a story...

Thanks for taking the time to bring this to us.
I was about to write: 'Have a great weekend,' but it's only Tuesday---
...it was a long day!

Janie said...

Interesting overview of Butte history. I like that spelling "oops!"
The balance between industry and environmental concers is still being played out in many places, including here in NE Utah.

Yogi♪♪♪ said...

Very interesting. My Grandfather had a farm in Dubois, Idaho before WWII but left the farming to his older boys and spent most of his time working as a powder man in the mines in Butte. I never got to meet him but I had an uncle who worked for a few years in the mines. He had some wild stories to tell. He has been gone for many years but my Aunt still lives in Butte although she is quite elderly now.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article Pat. Right up my alley, since its my disseration topic. ~ Stacie Barry

Should Fish More said...

Good article, Pat. And thanks for your comment on my son's email.

secret agent woman said...

Tough balance, I'd say.

Louise said...

Very interesting post. I had no idea about any of this. Regardless of whether Butte has managed to share its history well, you have done quite a lot here for that.

Kristine Shreve said...

Wow, I didn't know anything about copper mining and the results. Thanks for sharing this. It was very interesting.

tsduff said...

Came over for my fix of beautiful pictures - came away with a shot of history instead. Thanks for the informative post.