As Richard Gibson describes in the opening pages of Lost Butte, Montana, “Butte gets under your skin.” The city’s “story, as reflected in the buildings that line and once lined its streetscapes, is jogs and kinks and stops and starts, a crazy quilt in ten dimensions of space and time and ethnicity and attitude and emotion, ” and it beckons the visitor to unravel that skein of history. In this interview with History Press West, Gibson discusses the allure of Butte and shares some thoughts about his new book Lost Butte, Montana.
AK: What is it about Butte’s history that captures your imagination?
RG: It’s both the international scope of ethnic and labor history, and the intimate nature of Butte. When I learn about events of national importance that happened on the streets I walk every day, it really does “capture my imagination,” especially when the buildings, mines, and sidewalks that hosted or witnessed those events are still there. And it is also the breadth of Butte’s history. That gives me a never-ending tapestry whose fabric is intricate and fascinating. I have never lived anywhere remotely like Butte–and I mean both the Butte of history and the Butte of today. I love it dearly.
AK: What do you think the architectural character of Butte reveals about the city?
RG: One of my favorite things about the streetscapes is the intimate juxtaposition of living arrangements–a little miner’s cottage may be across the street from a mansion, next door to a four-plex, and down the street from a small apartment building or an Italianate middle-class home. Class distinction was strong, but blended, to a degree, in many neighborhoods. There was a shanty town as well as a small “mansion district,” but a hodge-podge jumble is more the rule. And in the central business district, what we call the Uptown, the state-of-the-art skyscraper architecture reflects an exceptionally rich urban metropolis where you could buy anything in 1912 that you could get in New York. It was a metropolis that was never part of Montana’s cowboy west, and the long sustained mining boom (followed by a longer bust) made for something that is truly unique.
AK: What sites or stories are people most interested in when you lead tours of historic Butte?
RG: People are probably most fascinated by the prohibition-era speakeasy and the dungeon-like jail where Evel Knievel got his name, but I think they end up being fascinated by people they may have never heard of–Carrie Nation, the reformer who brought her hatchet and acid tongue to Butte (with little effect), and Frank Little, a martyred union leader whose death here reverberates through the labor movement to this day. Visitors get diverse tastes of Butte, a little different from each tour guide, from each trolley driver, from each local resident they encounter, and I think they usually go away feeling that they’ve touched the surface of a deep well of history. I try to give visitors a sense of the bigger picture of Butte and its role in American history, using the specific places as the parts of that incredible overall meshwork, easily as complex as the intertwined mines underground.
AK: For the uninitiated, can you briefly explain the Berkeley Pit?
RG: It’s the economic reaction to an underground mining operation that extended to 10,000 miles of tunnels and killed 2,300 men over a century.
The pit was much cheaper and safer to operate, and therefore they could mine lower-grade ore economically. When mining ended in 1982, they also turned off underground pumps keeping natural groundwater out of the pit and the tunnels, so today that water has risen to become the deepest body of water in Montana, at more than 1,000 feet deep. It is contaminated with everything Butte had, from gold to arsenic, and it is acidic because our ores are sulfides and sulfur reacts with water to make sulfuric acid. The rising water is being monitored carefully and long before it could overflow, or even reach a level where water would go away from the pit, a water treatment plant will de-acidify the water–not to empty the pit, but rather to control it so that the adjacent environment does not get worse. We have to do that forever.
AK: Can you speak to the cultural fabric of Butte and the exhibit that you’re currently developing?
RG: I’m working on an exhibit for the Mai Wah Chinese museum that will focus on the Chinn family who owned the buildings now serving as the museum.
The buildings once housed noodle parlors, herbal doctors’ offices, and a huge Chinese mercantile. Despite the intense discrimination against the Chinese, in multi-ethnic Butte there may have been a bit more toleration inasmuch as the non-Chinese used Chinese goods and services extensively, from tens of laundries to restaurants to opium dens. I’m not saying there was much love between the two, but the size of the Chinese community (estimated near 2,500) may have helped. Their business savvy certainly helped: after a nasty boycott against them, Chinese businessmen sued their boycotters in court, and won. This is just one segment of a city where the no-smoking signs in the mines were in 14 languages. A recent book by the Butte Archives focused on the Slovenian and Croatian heritage.
AK: What impact did fire and industry have on the nature or development of Butte’s buildings?
RG: Read Lost Butte! The mining headframes, called gallows frames for their ominous similarity to a hangman’s platform, today are icons of Butte’s history and connect retired miners and their families directly to the mining industry that made Butte. Butte would not be here but for the mining, and ugly though the mining landscape may be (and the environmental disaster is still being repaired), that’s Butte. Butte wears everything on its sleeve, visible warts and all. Fire could be seen as a symbol of the decline, of fatalistic resignation to the end of the boom time, and its impact on residents and on the cityscape is intense. I think the emotional story of the 1960s and 1970s remains to be told.
AK: Are there historic buildings in Butte that are currently in danger of being ‘lost’?
RG: When almost everything is historic, there are indeed many that are in danger. Butte has most of the buildings of a city of 100,000 with a current population of 33,000, and an economy that is not exactly getting much worse, but that is also not thriving. There are lots of vacant historic buildings, and there’s a pervasive attitude that tearing them down will somehow equate with progress. I disagree; since I interact with about 1,500 tourists each year, I know that the reason they come to Butte is for the history, not for vacant lots. There is a vacant 1888 building on a corner that is one of the primary gateways to historic Uptown Butte. Part of the roof has collapsed, but it could probably have been repaired last year. It will likely be demolished. That’s the most high-profile example right now, but demolitions are approved at almost every meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission, and many of them are of historic buildings.
AK: What impact do you hope the book will have?
RG: If the book reaches people beyond Butte and drives them to visit, that would be great, because once people see what Butte has it is challenging for them to not be fascinated and to remain untouched. Many return year after year. I hope in focusing on the buildings themselves, and the amazing stories connected with them, the book might help grow an appreciation for what remains. If nothing else, I hope that it entertains and informs even knowledgeable Butte people. I tried to make it valuable to local residents as well as to visitors, and I learned a lot about my own town in the process.
Richard Gibson is a geologist, historian, and tour guide in Butte, Montana. He’s an officer with Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization and the Mai Wah Chinese Museum, and formerly worked for the World Museum of Mining and served on the local Historic Preservation Commission. He’s written booklets, newspaper articles, and essays focusing on Butte’s history and architectural heritage, and he’s the author of the Butte History blog at buttehistory.blogspot.com.