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:
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):
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:
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).