Butte began as a mining town in the late 19th century in the Silver Bow Creek Valley (or Summit Valley), a natural bowl sitting high in the Rockies straddling the Continental Divide. At first only gold and silver were mined in the area, but the advent of electricity caused a soaring demand for copper, which was abundant in the area. The small town soon became one of the most prosperous cities in the country, especially during World War I, and was often called “the Richest Hill on Earth”. It was the largest city for many hundreds of miles in all directions. The city attracted workers from Ireland, Wales, England, Lebanon, Canada, Finland, Austria, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, Croatia, Montenegro, Mexico, and all areas of the USA. The legacy of the immigrants lives on in the form of the Cornish pasty which was popularized by mine workers who needed something easy to eat in the mines, the povitica — a nut-roll which is a holiday favorite sold in many supermarkets and bakeries in the Butte area—and the boneless pork-chop sandwich.
The influx of miners gave Butte a reputation as a wide-open town where any vice was obtainable. The city’s famous saloon and red-light district, called the “Line”, was centered on Mercury Street, where the elegant bordellos included the famous Dumas Brothel, regarded as the longest-running house of prostitution in the U.S. In the brick alley behind the brothel was the equally famous Venus Alley, where women plied their trade in small cubicles called “cribs”. The red-light district brought miners and other men from all over the region and was openly tolerated by city officials until the 1980s as one of the last such urban districts in the U.S. The Dumas Brothel is now operated as a museum to Butte’s rougher days. Close by Wyoming Street is home to the Butte High School (home of the “Bulldogs”).
At the end of the 19th century, copper was in great demand because of new technologies such as electric power that required the use of copper. Three men fought for control of Butte’s mining wealth. These three “Copper Kings” were William A. Clark, Marcus Daly, and F. Augustus Heinze.
In 1899, Daly joined with William Rockefeller, Henry H. Rogers, and Thomas W. Lawson to organize the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company. Not long after, the company changed its name to Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM). Over the years, Anaconda was owned by assorted larger corporations. In the 1920’s, it had a virtual monopoly over the mines in and around Butte. Between approximately 1900 and 1917, Butte also had a strong streak of Socialist politics, even electing a Mayor on the Socialist ticket in 1914.
The prosperity continued up to the 1950’s, when the declining grade of ore and competition from other mines led the Anaconda company to switch its focus from the costly and dangerous practice of underground mining to open pit mining. This marked the beginning of the end for the boom times in Butte.
Over a dozen of the headframes still stand over the mine shafts, and the city still contains thousands of historic commercial and residential buildings from the boom times, which, especially in the Uptown section, give it a very old-fashioned appearance like a ghost town, with the many buildings and comparatively few people. As with many industrial cities, tourism and services, especially health care (Butte’s St. James Hospital has Southwest Montana’s only major trauma center), are rising as primary employers. Many areas of the city, especially the areas near the old mines, show signs of wear from time but a recent influx of investors and an aggressive campaign to remedy blight has led to a renewed interest in restoring property in Uptown Butte’s historic district, which was expanded in 2006 to include parts of Anaconda and is now the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States with nearly 6,000 contributing properties.
Environmental research and clean-up efforts have contributed to the diversification of the local economy, and signs of vitality remain, including a multi-million dollar polysilicon manufacturing plant locating nearby in the 1990s and the city’s recognition and designation in the late 1990s as an All-American City and also as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2002. In 2004, Butte received another economic boost as well as international recognition as the location for the Hollywood film Don’t Come Knocking, directed by renowned director Wim Wenders and released throughout the world in 2006.
The celebration of Butte’s Irish heritage (since 1882) is the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities. In these modern times about 30,000 revelers converge on Butte’s Historic Uptown District to enjoy the parade led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and celebrate in bars such as Maloney’s, the Silver Dollar Saloon, the M&M Cigar Store, and The Irish Times Pub.
Butte is one of the few cities in the United States where possession and consumption of open containers of alcoholic beverages are allowed on the street (although not in vehicles).
The larger and better known annual celebration is Knievel Days held each summer. This event draws over 50,000 bikers and daredevils from across the world. The highlight of the event is when all participants share a moment of silence for the whole Knievel clan traditionally observed at 4:20 pm on the second day of the event. The moment is broken by five daredevils simultaneously jumping 19 trucks while fireworks explode and fifty foot flames of fire shoot up through the trucks, all while God Bless America plays.
The Montana Folk Festival in Butte, Montana is The Story of America as Told Through Music, Dance, Crafts, Narrative, and Cuisine. The Montana Folk Festival is one of the largest free music festivals in the United States and takes place each July.
Butte’s Fourth of July Parade and Fireworks show is the largest in the state. In 2008 Barack Obama spent his last Fourth of July before his Presidency campaigning in Butte, taking in the parade with his family and celebrating his daughter Malia Obama’s 10th Birthday.