The journey from the Canadian Border to Butte was spectacular – first the northern prairies where, during the Cold War, the US built hundreds of ICBM silos underground. Malmstrom Air Force base was the center of the ICBM implementation and provided significant impact on the economy throughout the region. The prairie above these silos is calm and gentle – and many of the silos have been destroyed based on treaties to reduce nuclear warheads around the world.
And then, the mountains return – and Captain Bill had his hands full keeping Contessa under control as we climbed and then careened up and down the beautiful mountains toward Butte and southwest Montana.
As we follow our 3-3-3 rule of motorhoming, we had three nights in Butte. And, as always, we uncovered some interesting gems and opportunities to learn about parts of our glorious country. Our friends, Keith and Gena Hawk, lived here when Keith was studying petroleum engineering. It always adds more interest when we think about people we know who have a history in that location.
Butte has a long and illustrious history all around mining – gold, silver and copper, as well as manganese, zinc and lead. In 1872, William Clark arrived in Butte, the first of three Copper Kings in Butte. From his position as a banker, he repossessed mining properties when owners defaulted on their loans – of course, he then owned all the assets. He made a fortune in copper mining and smelting.
Enter Marcus Daly, the second Copper King of Butte. He established Anaconda Mining in 1883 in Butte. Anaconda built the largest smelter at the time, including a chimney that is 585′ tall (Washington Monument is 555′). Railcars carried the copper ore from the city of Butte to the smelter, 25 miles west, to be heated in the smelting furnaces and reduced to a copper matte that could be shipped for commercial use.
There was a need for housing during those boom years. A room in a rooming house might have two cots – and two men rented each of the two cots. They worked 12 hour shifts, so one slept in the cot while the other man worked. The shift changed – and the guy that got off then jumped in that same cot! Daly built one of many apartment houses to meet that need. That building, along with an amazing number of others built during the late 1800’s, are still in use and in amazingly good condition in Uptown Butte.
There was a huge battle between Clark and Daly to be “The King” in town. When Daly built his “community supporting” apartment building, he built it right beside Clark’s mansion – insuring he blocked the view of the mansion to the town done the hill!
William Clark ran for congressional office three times during those years. He lost the first two, largely on the money Daly spent to insure he would loose. The third time, Clark won – Daly had died the month before! So, even in the late 1800’s – money, power and politics were entwined just as they are today!
Anaconda became one of the largest mining companies in the world. While the Butte mine was always profitable, the largest holdings of Anaconda were in Chile. In 1971, Chile’s newly elected socialist president expropriated Anaconda’s Chilean copper mines. Losses from the Chilean takeover weakened the company’s already struggling financial position. In 1977, Anaconda was acquired by Arco (Atlantic Richfield) in an attempt to diversify their holdings. Over the ensuing years, Arco closed numerous mines and processing plants. Dennis Washington purchased a portion of the mines and reopened operations under Montana Resources.
Today, Montana Resources is mining copper and silver from those mines. They load the raw ore onto railcars – and instead of taking the 25 miles to a smelter, they move the ore to the west coast, load them onto ships and send the ore overseas (China) to be processed. The regulations by the EPA prohibit the company from processing the metals anywhere in the US.
The portions of the mines (both open& closed mines) that Montana Resources did not purchase include the Berkeley Pit. They are still owned by Arco, now a division of British Petroleum (BP). They are responsible for one of the largest Superfund clean-up sites in the country for contamination clean-up.
All of the more than 10K miles of mine shifts and tunnels under Butte as well as the vast Berkley Pit have been flooded. This eliminates an oxygen exposure to the mine to halt any additional contamination. The magnitude of the reclamation and clean-up is beyond comprehension. Silverbow Creek and all of its banks, which was the primary waterflow from the mines, has been dug down one foot and removed. The soil has been cleaned and returned, new top soil added and native vegetation planted. That is for the 120+ miles until it flows into a reservoir that is totally closed as they determine what to do with that environment.
The Pit itself has its own water filtration system that removes water from the pit at a rate of 10K gal/minute. The filtration system cleans the water and has now been approved by the EPA to be returned into the water table. To date, Arco/BP has spent over $2.3B in reclamation. In addition to all the amazing work being done and engineering solutions being found to deal with all the components of the massive contamination – Arco/BP has found ways to recover sufficient quantities of hard metals while they are processing these contaminates to cover all the costs of the reclamation!
Butte has an interesting history of hard working, western ingenuity and labor, including an amazing number of buildings constructed in the late 1800’s that are in amazing condition and are still in use. The uptown area has remained very much intact with the “wild, wild west” feel, even the brothel that closed in 1986 (even though that business was outlawed in Montana in 1918). Montana Technological University (formerly Montana School of Mining) as a leading STEM University is growing and providing a small town, small university experience with tremendous hiring success for its graduates.
And then, the next day was another boat opportunity! This time it was to traverse the Missouri River, the longest river in North America, thru “The Gates of the Mountains”. So named by Merriweather Lewis when he and men were exploring waterways thru the mountains. Captain Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark had, as was often the case with explorers, divided resources – Clark to look for horses and materials to get over the mountains while Lewis and his team would explore waterways. They would meet up later to continue their pursuit of the Pacific Ocean.
According to Lewis’ journal , the evening of July 19, 1805, Lewis and his team encountered walls of limestone 1200′ high lining both sides of the river, with water so deep they had to row their boats rather than pole them and towing from shore was clearly not an option. As they approached that granite wall, the mountains seemed open and reveal more granite walls and additional river.
We were fortunate to have a lovely old wooden vessel in “Sacajawea” with her very knowledgeable and passionate captain/interpreter. We enjoyed an amazing two hours of history, unimaginable scenery – and magical wildlife.
As she shared the history and the amazing views, she would spin the boat around so that both sides of the small vessel could get a good look at whatever she was highlighting.
In addition to amazing rock formations, we watched for signs of wildlife – and we were not disappointed!
We disembarked with our hearts and eyes full of more amazing parts of this gorgeous land.
The next morning, we turned Contessa east as we began our journey home! Our first stop was scheduled for Bozeman, with the intent/option to again visit Yellowstone from the northern entry at Gardiner. Unfortunately, while the northern loop is open again in the Park which we did not see, the bridge there was washed away during the floods in June. They are working feverishly to replace the bridge, but entry there is not possible. We enjoyed our 3 nights there (yes, the 3-3-3 rule), including a visit to St. James Episcopal Church on Sunday morning. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the first services were held in this beautiful Gothic-style structure in October, 1890.
We continued east and made a lovely mid-day stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The monument recognizes the horrendous battle known as “Custer’s Last Stand” which occurred on June 25 & 26, 1876. Clinton, our tour guide, is a Native American of the Crow Nation. He did a tremendous job sharing the history, drivers and personalities of both the US military leaders and the warring factions of the various Indian tribes involved.
George Armstrong Custer himself had a real affinity for the Native Americans and did not agree with how the US Government was forcing these Americans to leave their native lands and move to reservations, primarily because gold had been found on their lands. The Fort Laramie Treaty had defined reservations for each tribe – and the Sioux Nation had been assigned what is now western South Dakota.
President Grant had ordered all Native Americans to move into their defined reservations by January 31, 1876 or be forcibly moved there. Custer’s 7th Cavalry (including his two brothers, brother-in-law and a nephew) had been sent from Washington to what is now Wyoming to forcibly move the Sioux (specifically, Lakota) into “their reservation”. Custer’s plan was to capture the women and children – and, historically, the warriors would peacefully follow. The Sioux & Cheyenne had joined forces against a common enemy – the white man! They had gathered more than 10,000 tribesmen on the shore of the Little Bighorn River. Being fierce warriors, they were NOT going to be removed from what was now Crow territory, they were going to fight. And fight, they did!
Custer had 600 ill-prepared, under-nourished men and many did not even know how to handle their horse. Custer divided his men into three battalions to separate the women and children from the warriors, but the plan was severely flawed. At the end of the two days, all of the 210 men in Custer’s battalion and at least 150 of the other two battalions were dead.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, with structures honoring both the US military and the Indian Nations (Sioux, Cheyenne and Crow) is a beautiful and respectful place to honor those forced into a terrible situation in a terrible time in our country’s history.
On our journey to Little Bighorn, we left Montana where we spent the vast majority of our time over the past six weeks. Our destination for the night was Sheridan, Wyoming.
“My favorite state has not yet been invented.
It will be called Montana and it will be perfect”
Abraham Lincoln when he created the Montana Territory in 1864.
Five years later, Montana became the 41st State
And will forever hold a special place in our hearts!