Butte, MT: The Richest Hill on Earth

Early June: It’s 106 degrees back home in AZ — 41 degrees here in Montana. Though none is falling on us, the 10,000-foot Highlands Mountains surrounding the hillside town of Butte are blanketed in snow. It’s simply Butte-iful!

Butte is called the “Richest Hill on Earth” because of the immense amount of precious metals pulled from the Earth here since the 1800’s.  This hill of only 7 square miles is the most extensively mined area in the WORLD!

At the World Museum of Mining, built on an actual site of the abandoned historic Orphan Girl mine, you are able to go down, down, down underground! 

Our fabulous 70’ish-year-old guide had worked in mines his entire life, and the behind-the-scenes (or should I say under-the-scenes) background info was fascinating!

We were also able to climb up into an enormous steel 100-foot headframe and hoist house.  There are 14 of these headframes dotting the Butte landscape. They were were used to lower everything from men heading to work, to equipment, to mules, as much as a mile down into the mines; and most importantly, to pull load after load after load of ore back up. Although they were well cared for, once a mule went down, he never came back up and spent his entire life underground!

The museum also had a collection of mining equipment and vehicles …. because big boys like big toys!

It also rec-created a typical 1890’s mining town. I was particularly amused and/or offended (I can’t decide which) by certain depictions of women.

With 49 miles of vertical shafts and over 10,000 miles of underground horizontal tunnels in Butte, the only thing that keeps the entire town from caving into itself is that they have all since been filled with water.  Uptown Butte is one huge Historic District (the nation’s largest, in fact), with many gorgeous, well-preserved, early 20th century buildings.

Where there is a mining town, there are most certainly women, and 99% of them are prostitutes. In Butte, more than a thousand women worked from parlor houses, brothels, and “cribs.”  Today, the Dumas Brothel still occasionally offers tours of its undisturbed premises, which ran from 1890 to 1982, making it the longer running active brothel in U.S. history.  The Dumas has a front door, but which were almost certainly entered by everyone through the back alley door, and possibly even through now-lost underground tunnels.

Speaking of longest-running, also in Butte is the nation’s oldest, continuously-operated Chinese restaurant.  The  is the Pekin Noodle Parlor, which opened in 1911 in a former brothel and opium den, and where you can still get some great Egg Foo Yung.

Here in 2022, they no longer drill underground, but instead do strip mining, like at the huge Continental Pit which is visible from anywhere in town. The Butte trolley tour of town includes a stop at the Berkeley Pit, which is basically a big open pit filled with acidic water and heavy metals which was formed when mining operations ceased there and the underground pumps were shut off.

Rock music and cannon booms sound at intervals to keep birds from landing here and perishing immediately; during times when thousands of geese are migrating by, they fly drones over the water to chase them away, lest they decide to take a pit stop in this perilous place.

In fact, this whole town could at one time be called a “Butte-iful Disaster.” Hundreds of mines and smelters belched toxic chemicals. Every tree was stripped from the earth to be used as timber in the underground mines. It was dirty and smelly and the air was filled with smoke and ash at all times. Today, the mining companies have been “encouraged” by the federal government to make it right by cleaning everything up, replanting trees, and so forth, which they are in the process of doing.

Mining at the time was a very dangerous career, and the Memorial Garden lists the names of over 2,500 deaths from mining accidents of all types from 1865 to the present. Mining used to be the 3rd most dangerous profession (behind commercial fishing and steel), but now thanks to advances in technology and governing, it has moved down to 20th most dangerous.

One incident alone accounted for 168 of these deaths, when in 1917 they were in the process of electrifying a mine.  A miner’s open-flame light on his helmet caught fire to an electric cord which was wrapped in parafin wax, igniting the cord instantaneously and filling multiple shafts with thick smoke as the timbers supporting the mine shafts also caught fire.  To this day, the remains the single worst hard-rock mining disaster in the history of the world.

Three main dudes, known collectively as the Butte Copper Kings, owned virtually all the mines and every other kind of industry in Butte, and one of their mansions here can be toured.  William Clark was the second richest American at the time, and the history of his life and family are throughout the mansion. 

Of particular interest within the 34-room Copper King Mansion was the birdcage shower, basically like a car wash for humans … and it still works!  Small pinholes line the metal tubes.  You stand in there, close the curtain (very important step), and it shoots water at you from head to toe!  Fun!

I can’t lie … there’s also a lot of really weird stuff in the Copper King Mansion. Like, super weird. Remember folks, use the Fanny-Whacker “briskly until object is blushing pink!” Ummmm, ohhhh-kayyyy.

Keeping vigil over Butte is the Our Lady of the Rockies statue, which looks very small from a distance, but at 90 feet tall, is America’s fourth largest statue!  Made in the likeness of Mary, mother of Jesus, it was built in four enormous sections and lifted high onto the Continental Divide via helicopter.  See it there?

Here’s a zoomed view! Ain’t she purty?? It was built by a man as a tribute to his wife’s recovery from cancer; you can visit the Our Lady and even go inside of it, but only on one of their guided half-day tours – no private vehicles are allowed – and only during seasons when the snow on the roads in the mountains has melted. 

We got as close to her as we possibly could with a hike on the 4-mile Maud S Canyon Loop Trail, a steep but gorgeous route to a side-view of her majesty, and the city of Butte in the distance.

Besides Our Lady, perhaps the most famous non-living occupant of Butte is Evel Knievel, who was born and lived here.  Like everyone else, Knievel worked at the mines, where he was fired when he attempted to make the enormous earth-mover he drove, to do a motorcycle-type wheelie.  He drove it into Butte’s main power line, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.  In fact, he took his famous nickname “Evel” during one of his many nights in the Butte jail.

Our favorite activity in Butte was a bike ride on the abandoned circa-1909 Milwaukee Railroad Line bed.  This 4.5-mile crushed-gravel trail was made all the more enjoyable by its long and winding route through granite boulders, over a 600 foot steel trestle …

and through two long, dark tunnels, one of which was completely iced over!  Forced to dismount, we baby-stepped our way along the 1,110-foot length of it, slipping and laughing all the way.

We’re now “rolling our load” 40 miles down the road to Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, and their fabulous underground cave tours!

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