Four Things to Love about Butte

A city with more than 4,000 historic buildings, Butte is one of only five cities in the country recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Filled with a rich and remarkable history, Butte was the “place to be” during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Imagine an urban metropolis in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Rocky Mountain splendor. Butte was the largest city west of the Mississippi, the wealthiest in America—if not the world. By unearthing copper from seemingly endless reserves—what with the huge copper demands of World War I and Thomas Edison’s discovery that electricity could be conducted through copper wire—Butte quickly became a bustling city of miners and millionaires.

People came from all over the world: Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Canada, Mexico, China. At one point in the early 1900s, William Clark, the Copper King, reported earnings of $50 million dollars—a tidy sum in today’s dollars, but even more astounding in those days.

From its spectacular churches, theaters, and government buildings, to the fine detail of the West Side’s Victorian homes (known today as the “Painted Ladies”), the architecture was exquisite. Once full of culture, with museums, restaurants, half a dozen theaters, numerous pubs, a vibrant Chinatown, and a full-on red-light district, uptown Butte became known as “the richest hill on earth.” At its height, the population reached nearly 100,000 souls—larger than modern-day Billings, the Treasure State’s biggest city today. (It should be noted here that some people claim the largest census ever reported in Butte was closer to 65,000.)

Nearly a century later, Butte is quite a different sight. Now home to just 34,000 people, many of its buildings are unoccupied. But with the help of at least one entrepreneur, uptown Butte is getting a long-overdue facelift, one building at a time. Starting with the purchase of the Owsley Block building on Park Street, local developer Jeff Francis has accumulated 12 buildings since 1999. He’s managed to clean and restore them, putting on new roofs, installing new windows, and making many other improvements. His idea is to lease these buildings to prospective businesses in town. So far, he’s had fair success—88% of the refurbished space is filled commercially on the lower levels, and four new tenants came in last year. “With all that’s happening in this city,” he says, “it does seem like Butte is beginning to turn a corner.”

In addition to sightseeing within the city and taking in the historical buildings one by one, there are several museums that capture the essence of Butte’s history.

The World Museum of Mining, a replica of a 1890s mining camp spanning 200 acres, expresses the social and ethnic history of the Butte area.

The Mineral Museum, located on the Montana Tech Campus, offers a fine collection of minerals with over 1,300 specimens on display from around the world as well as from Butte.

The Mai Wah Museum is a historic building in what was once Chinatown. It features interpretive exhibits about Asian history in Butte and in the Rocky Mountain West.

The Dumas Brothel Museum is located in the Dumas building and is the only building reserved in the old red-light district. The Dumas remained in business from 1890 to 1982, making it the longest-running brothel in the country. Today, it’s a museum featuring an old-time photography studio and guided tours.

The Copper King Mansion, the first home to be designated a Montana historic site, is open for tours. Inside the 34-room mansion, elegance adorns the walls filled with bronze, silver, and copper touches. Nine fireplaces, Tiffany-style stained glass windows, and hand-painted fresco ceilings add to the house’s charm and sophistication. The current owners of the mansion also have antiques and several artifacts on display throughout the house.

The Piccadilly Museum of Transportation displays transportation memorabilia and advertising art from around the world.

The Arts Chateau Museum, a historical mansion, features two exhibition galleries and collectibles from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ironically, much of this architectural splendor can be attributed to a bygone catastrophe. The city of Butte unknowingly preserved itself for us today due to an 1879 fire that destroyed the entire central business district. After the conflagration, city law required all new buildings to be built in brick or stone, thus creating the largest National Historical District in the West.

One thing sure to be found here, in the midst of all this rich Montana history, is that the spirit of Butte prevails. Next time you drive through Butte or decide to go on a good old road-trip adventure, stop and take a look into a piece of Montana’s most fascinating past.