Mining in Butte, a potted history

Gold was discovered in the Montana territory in 1863. Striking out from the original find, near Virginia City, Montana, prospectors eventually found Silver Bow creek, in what is now Silver Bow county, Montana. Gold was found in 1864. Gold quickly played out, to be replaced by silver. A few hardy prospectors tried to mine the quartz veins for silver, but lacked the technology to extract ore. Butte appeared ready to become a ghost town.

The hill about Silver Bow creek, that would become Butte Montana had a massive amount of copper, in addition to the silver. Electrification made copper important. Eventually, dozens of vertical shafts would be sunk, smelters would be built, and hundreds of miles of tunnels would be dug in search of ore.

In 1868, Andrew Jackson Davis began funding development in Silver Bow county.  His arrival might be considered the start of the period of growth and consolidation, known as The War of the Copper Kings, that would include combat in the tunnels, legal and other trickery, and long court battles.  The war would result in the complete consolidation of mining in the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, usually called the ACM, or simply, the company, under the leadership of Marcus Daly, in 1899.  The Standard Oil trust had won. Butte became a company town.

Although underground mining would continue long into the 20th century, it became clear in the 1950s that another form of mining would be more profitable.  In 1955, the Berkeley pit was started. It continued to operate until all ACM mining in Butte halted in 1983. The underground pumps were turned off. The pit flooded, becoming one of the larger Superfund sites in the country.

Mining has never completely stopped.  Montana Resources continues open pit strip mining to this day. The scale is tiny compared to the peak of mining operation, and Butte has ceased being a company town.

One of Butte’s slogans is “A mile high and a mile deep.” This derives from one of its famous mines, The Mountain Consolidated(Google Maps). Situated at over six thousand feet above sea level, the mine’s vertical shaft reached a depth of 5380 feet.

Some references

There are many good web sites that discuss Butte’s mining history. Some are linked to above. In addition, I have a modest collection of books.  Three of the books I’ve consulted for this potted history:  (The links go to Amazon, but I don’t get a referral for them.)

Glasscock, C B. The War of the Copper Kings, unknown: unknown, 1935. — I first read this as a child in the 1960s. It is a breezy, approachable account.

Malone, Michael P. The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. — This is a scholarly publication that has great detail and many references.

Marcosson, Isaac F. Anaconda, Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc, 1957. — an official history of the Anaconda Company from 1875 through the late 1940s.





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