Mary stands atop the Continental Divide overlooking the town of Butte Montana. She is not hard to miss and always draws in a look from me while driving into Butte. Mary is of course the Virgin Mary. She stands at an impressive 90 feet (27 m) keeping a watchful eye over the town of Butte. Mary also overlooks the Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit copper mine. The pit is a slight eye sore but is one of Butte’s many signs of a classic mining town.
Butte is a city rich with mining history dating back to the late 1800’s. The Berkeley Pit was opened much later in 1955 and operated until its closure in 1982, aptly closing on Earth Day of that year. The pit is 7000 feet long (2133 m) and 5,600 feet wide (1706 m). And while the water looks quite serene it is highly acidic, comparable to lemon juice. Although this is not water you would want to throw a few ice cubes into and sip away on a hot sunny day.
You cannot see the toxicity the water although the pit has caused a bit of controversy over the years. The pH value is 2.5, meaning that it can not support most life. The toxic water has been implicated in killing a group of 342 snow geese. The geese landed in the water in 1995 and all perished. Later reports from Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), the manager of the pit, stated that it was not the water that killed the geese. ARCO sited that the birds were infected with aspergillosis, a tuberculosis like disease. After a few eyebrow raises regarding ARCO’s statement the State of Montana did their own investigation into the deaths of the birds. They found that the birds did in fact die from exposure to copper, cadmium and arsenic, all elements found in the pit water and not aspergillosis as previously indicated.
The water within the pit has slowly been on the rise ever since the mine closure in 1982. The pit is a Superfund site and a water treatment plant has been put in place on the east side of the pit. The plant will treat up to seven million gallons of water per day and release the purified water into the Silver Bow Creek. The pit water is projected to reach the water table by 2018. The plant is expected to function indefinitely and should prevent any additional pollutants from going into the groundwater. If the pollutants are not prevented the Silver Bow Creek and Clark Fork River will be in danger of being destroyed by the toxic water. The aquifer that provides the city residents with their drinking water will also be in danger. Although some believe that is has already leaked into the drinking water. YIKES.
The Berkeley Pit can be viewed from an overlook located at 1000 George Street from March to November. Admission is $2 USD. The site is pretty bare bones with some interpretive signs and an audio recording giving background information to the Berkeley Pit Mine.
If you wish to continue learning about the mining history of Butte, and I highly recommend that you do, you will want to stop by the World Museum of Mining. Located at 155 Mining Museum Road they are open S-S from 9 am to 6 pm April to October. You will have two choices when you arrive to the museum: admission to the museum or admission to the museum pairing up with an underground tour. You will not want to miss the underground tour. Reservations for the underground tour are highly recommended. I did not make reservations but I was traveling in the shoulder season on a Monday. Our group was rather larger considering the shoulder season, about 7. The underground tour takes you into the Orphan Girl Mine located at the World Museum of Mining site.
I had about 30 minutes before the underground tour started so I decided to explore the museum. The museum consisted of mining artifacts and a pretty impressive collection of dolls and dollhouses. The doll collection is from Samie Keith, the longest continual resident of Ramsey Montana. Ramsey is located a few miles east of Butte Montana.
Samie, a fellow dog lover, could be seen driving around town in her 1930 Model A Ford with her two Boston Terriers: Sherlock (Holmes) and Agatha (Christie). While viewing her collection of dolls and dollhouses be sure to keep an eye out for porcelain replicas of Boston Terriers. The replicas are found throughout the displays. A sort of Where’s Waldo, except better because they are cute little dogs! Samie was instrumental in the World Museum of Mining, serving as secretary for 20 years. She and her mother donated artifacts as well as devoted many hours into making the museum into what it is today.
After viewing the dollhouses I moved outside to the Hell Roarin’ Gulch. The town is a recreation representing a 1890’s mining town. There are about 35 buildings with 15 of those being actual historical structures moved to this area for display. The town is a fun step back into history. You can peek into the windows of the stores and homes on display seeing how the townsfolk once lived.
A group started to form around the Model A Ford located outside The First National Bank, where we waited for the tour to begin. Our guide appeared and shared a brief history of Butte starting with how the town came to be known as the “Richest Hill On Earth”. By 1896 Butte was responsible for producing 26% of the world’s copper supply and 51% of the United State’s supply. 10,000 miles (16,093 km) of mining tunnels snake their way throughout the hillside.
There were three main prospectors in the town of Butte, William A Clark, Marcus Daly and F. Augustus Heinze. They would later be known as The Copper Kings. The competition was fierce between the men, even resulting in Heinze purposely obtaining claims right next to Clark’s due to his hatred for the man.
Claims were written in such a manner that when an ore vein was found you were allowed to follow it to the end. If the vein led into someone else’s claim, you were allowed to follow it and were entitled to it. Heinze’s motivation was to find the ore vein within his claim and follow it. His hope was that it would lead into Clark’s and then mine out the minerals from under him. Essentially he was trying to steal Clark’s loot. Kind of a jerk move, but I never did find out if Clark did something to Heinze. Perhaps it was justified.
It was now time to enter the Orphan Girl Mine. The guide led us into a trailer where we suited up with hard hats and headlights, a requirement for the tour. Suitable shoes are also recommended, although not provided.
We then made our way down a slight decline through an open shaft into the mine. The ceiling dripped with condensation as the guide explained that we would only be able to enter the beginning part of the mine. Like most of the abandoned mines hidden within the hillside, they are flooded with water. The water in the mind shafts is the same toxic water found in the Berkeley Pit.
The World Museum of Mining is located near the Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Students from the college use the Orphan Girl Mine as a resource for learning about mining. Students are in the process of working on opening up more of the mine. But for now we are only able to enter the beginning part of the mine. Our guide described the day in the life of a miner as we explored the shafts.
The floor was lined with rails that carried the mining carts around to the different shafts. The carts were once moved by men. Later it was found that mules were much more efficient in moving the carts as they could pull more weight then the men. Sadly these mules did not live much of a life. They lived full-time in the mines, never leaving at the end of their shifts like the miners. The mule’s lifespan was fairly short, ranging from 2 to 4 years.
On a happier note our guide did give us some funny background on where the term “stop yanking my chain” came from. One of the carts located on the tracks would be designated for bathroom purposes, also known as a honey pot. The carts would be held in place by putting a chain across the tracks to keep the wheels from rolling down the track. Playful miners would joke with the miner using the bathroom. The miners would yank the chain out, thus allowing the cart to roll away with the bathroom goer atop the cart. Being that the mine was full of a bunch of men “Stop yanking my chain” was probably heard often.
We walked back up to the surface and toured the mine yard before officially wrapping up. Here we found several tools use for mining as well as the headframe for the Orphan Girl Mine. Headframes are a hoist system that lifts the ore or miners out of the underground mine. Headframes are found all over the town of Butte paying homage to their mining history.
One last stop on the mining history tour of Butte can be the William Clark Mansion. The mansion is located at 219 West Granite St. Clark was one of the Copper Kings of Butte. Tours are offered however I have never been able to snag one. I never seem to get there at the right time, but one day I will!