Butte, America- The Richest Hill On Earth
The sun is just settling down on the horizon, throwing most of streets into the soft shadows of dusk. The streets are eerie quiet, except for the occasional bar or pub whose music spills out their open doors in snatches as I walk by. I love it here, and would love to spend weeks finding its hidden secrets.
I’ve had this strange fascination with Butte ever since I first visited three years ago. It was fall then, and fires from dry winter and a hot summer had filled the air with an ashy smoke which spread over Butte in a looming layer that seemed like it belonged in this town of boarded windows and peeling paint. That day I drove to the top of the hill where Uptown stood in the shadows of skeletal mine headframes, the above-ground remains of the underground mines first built in the late 1890’s, and a constant reminder of the town’s history.
And that history is what fascinates me about Butte. It is a mining boomtown in the extreme. Not one of these ghost towns were it goes up overnight, and then disappears even quicker when the resource runs out. This boomtown spanned decades and even generations, with underground mines providing life, a livelihood and community, as well as death.
Today is different; Butte feels different. Spring has turned the surrounding tan or pale yellow hills to a vibrant green. The sky is the blue that only appears next to puffy white clouds mixed with gray and rain. A rainbow appears down the valley from me, not the usual thin strip, but a wall of translucent color. Every twist and turn in this place brings a building or and image I want to capture forever with my camera. I catch glimpses not of how this place is now, but of what it used to be.
Buttes’ decline started in the 50’s, when the underground mines were closed. The open pit mine opened, and was much less labor intensive. Workers lost their livelihoods. The open pit still stretches into the distance, double the size of the town, a mountain turned to rubble, with its inside treasures sent like tiny veins into our homes and throughout the world, now thrumming with the steady pulse of electricity. It is almost surreal in its size, grandeur, and destruction. It closed in the 80’s, but will have permanently changed the landscape
The architecture here is stunning, but ghostly. The population of Butte peaked in 1920 at 100,000. Now, barely 34,000 residents live here. In Uptown, most of the commercial buildings are empty. What glass remains is filmed with years of grime and neglect. I long to see it bustling with the windows surrounded with flowers instead of ply-wood. These buildings were built to last. In the late 1870’s a fire decimated Uptown Butte, and the city council passed a law that all Uptown buildings must be constructed of brick or stone. So here they still stand, the hollow echoes of lives that feel more distant than they actually are.
Yet, the city still feels alive in a way that doesn’t come from humans, like it was meant for more than being relegated to a boomtown. No one stopped to wonder, when Butte was full of life, “What happens when the money runs out.”
Perhaps they didn’t want to know.