|Butte, Montana was once known world-wide as The Richest Hill on Earth. A combination of geologic circumstances produced a mineral wealth that made hundreds of men rich and, more importantly, gave high-paying jobs and opportunities to thousands and thousands of immigrants from much of the rest of the world. An oft-told story is of emigrants being told, “Don’t stop in America, go straight to Butte!”|
The mile-high basin, just west of the Continental Divide, caught the attention of gold prospectors in the 1860’s. By 1864 they were successfully working the placer deposits of the creek that wrapped around the relatively insignificant hill and the steeper knob to the west. The curve of the creek, shining in the afternoon sun, gave the place a name, Silver Bow, the knob became Big Butte.
Prospectors, living up to their name, also took notice of the many iron and manganese-stained outcrops of veins that cut across the hill, putting down prospect holes to test for the lode source of the placer gold. They found little gold, but got tantalizing assays of silver, frustrating because the remote area offered little hope of working those ores.
By 1871 the placers had been worked to the limit of the water available and the area was nearly deserted except for a few dreamers who continued working on the veins. A quartz mill and a small smelter were erected in 1868 but abandoned for lack of experience. Little hardrock work was done until 1874 when there was a resurgence brought on by the relative closeness of the new Union Pacific Railroad at Corrine, Utah. The railroad lowered the cost of supplies and gave a cheaper avenue to ship high-grade ore. W.A. Clark, destined to become one of the five richest men in America, shipped his first ore to Baltimore.
By 1878 there were several quartz mills, and a few small smelters, in operation or under construction, and the post office was established. Just before Christmas, 1880, the Utah & Northern RR was completed into the camp, marking childhood’s end for mining in the district and the start of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Equipment and capital poured into the formerly primitive community. Silver lined the pockets of capitalist and miner alike.
Marcus Daly arrived in town in 1876 to manage the Alice silver mine for the Walker Brothers of Salt Lake City. He soon became aware that the silver lodes being mined were showing more and more copper at a time when the electrical age was dawning. With the foresight to realize the future for Butte was brightening, not fading with depth as many of his contemporaries feared, he bought the Anaconda prospect. W. A. Clark, who had prospered with his mining and business investments in and out of Butte, was also positioning himself with astute purchases.
In 1882 the district produced nine million pounds of copper. In 1883 production leaped over 250%. By 1884 there were four large smelters operating and Daly was building what would become the world’s largest metallurgical plant at Anaconda, thirty miles to the west.
By 1896 a five square mile section of the earth was producing 210,000,000 pounds of copper a year, over 26% of the world supply, 51% of the United States’, and employing some 8000 men with a payroll equivalent to $44,000,000 a month in today’s dollars. Newcomer upstart F. Augustus Heinze’s Montana Ore Purchasing Company (MOP) smelter alone was pouring 2,000,000 pounds of copper a month. The by-product gold and silver amounted to some $500,000,000 a year, again at present-day value.
The Richest Hill on Earth indeed.
The interests of Clark, Daly, and Heinze inevitably collided in the development of this unimaginable wealth, as documented in “The War of the Copper Kings” by Glasscock and McNelis’ “Copper King at War”. The Amalgamated Copper Co. took over Daly’s Anaconda Copper Mining Co., as well as Heinze’s holdings, and eventually all but some of Clark’s holdings until after he died in 1925.
After the “war”, Amalgamated was re-minted into a new Anaconda Copper Mining Company. “The Company”, as it was known in Butte, went on to acquire mines, mills and smelters in both Americas and around the world. With the addition of manufacturing facilities, it took the motto, “From Mine to Consumer.” Butte became famous, from the 1890’s to the 1930’s as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” with many hard-fought battles for worker’s rights, as well as being the cutting edge of technological developments in mining, milling, and smelting.
The worst hardrock mining disaster in the United States took the lives of 168 miners at the Granite Mountain mine, June 8, 1917. The tragedy had the positive consequence of empowering the United States Bureau of Mines to become a world authority on hard rock mine safety, as well as providing a basis for many of the mine safety laws and regulations today.
Rich from the profits of WWII, the ACM, as Anaconda was known by then, embarked on the Greater Butte Project (GBP) to mine the ores of the Hill at a much lower grade but very much higher volume by block caving. In the process of spending millions, a small experimental open pit was started on the site of the old Berkeley shaft. It was so successful that the GBP block caving development was limited to the work completed by 1958. The Berkeley Pit became the major mine in Butte, feeding the new Weed Concentrator 30,000 tons a day by 1963, devouring three neighborhoods in the process. The last caving was done in 1963 through the Kelley shaft, the last one sunk in Butte.
Anaconda took a fatal blow in 1971 with the nationalization of its Chuquicamata mine by the Chilean government, along with the Cananea mine in Mexico. Doomed by bad investments, the once-mighty company was sold to Atlantic Richfield in 1977. ARCO soon closed the underground mines and by 1983 all operations had ceased. The Anaconda smelter was scrapped. Only the smokestack remains.
The Butte mines and concentrator were slated for the same fate when they were purchased in 1986 by Dennis Washington. At the urging Frank Gardner, the former manager of Butte operations, Montana Resources Inc. (MRI) was formed to successfully resume mining in the Continental East pit. The company now employs about 350 people and produces 50,000 tons of copper-molybdenum ore per day. At this writing MRI has over 3,000,000 employee hours without a lost-time accident.
A century of mining left scars that have become the Nation’s largest Superfund site, with the huge Berkeley Pit lake as the centerpiece. The vast majority of the damage was due to the limited technology of the times and bad decisions, not necessarily corporate greed or disdain. British Petroleum, ARCO’s successor, is picking up the costs of the largely successful and nearly completed cleanup.
The city of Butte and its 30-odd thousand people, down from nearly 100,000 during WWI, is no longer the Richest Hill on Earth. Changes in technology and society, the depletion of immense orebodies, and the discovery of even more incredible deposits elsewhere have stolen that crown. What remains is Butte, America, a unique and storied city with a core group of people who still retain much of the camaraderie of the unforgiving days of underground hardrock mining, when a man’s partner was his lifeline.
“How’s she go, Pard?” “She’s gotta go!” And Butte is still going.
The Richest Hill on Earth with the Anaconda and Neversweat Mines, Butte, MT.
Miners going underground at the Anaconda Mine.
William Clark’s Butte Reduction Works.
View of downtown Butte with mines on the horizon, ca1915.
Anaconda Copper’s Berkeley Pit in the early 1960’s.