Butte: History

Discovery of Gold and Silver Brings Settlers to Region

The area surrounding Butte's present location remained uninhabited before gold was discovered in 1864 in Silver Bow Creek. Native Americans and explorers passed through the region, but found no attractions for permanent settlement until two prospectors detected placer deposits in the creek; they named the site the Missoula lode. Other prospectors came, and by 1867 the population of the mining settlement reached 500 people. Water was scarce, however, and the town began to decline; the 1870 census recorded only about 200 people.

One of the region's first prospectors, William Farlin, returned in 1874 to claim several outcrops of quartz that he had discovered previously. Before long a silver boom began, bringing a chaos of claim staking and claim jumping as prospectors overran the site. Investors William Clark and Andrew Davis constructed mills for extracting gold and silver, and by 1876, when a townsite patent was issued, the prosperous camp numbered 1,000 residents. Marcus Daly, representing Salt Lake City mining entrepreneurs, arrived that same year and bought the Alice Mine, naming it Walkerville for his employers. In 1879 Butte, which had been named for Big Butte, a volcanic cone to the northwest, was incorporated as a city.

Copper Discovered; Butte Thrives; Unions Formed

In 1880 Daly sold his interest in the Walker mining operations and bought the Anaconda Mine. As he was digging for silver, Daly struck copper, thus initiating the industry that eventually made him one of the country's wealthiest and most powerful men. Daly attracted investors from as far away as Boston and New York, and within a year the town had several mines and mining companies. In a lifelong rivalry with William Clark for control of Butte, Daly finally won out as the "boss" of a one-industry town. The arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1881 ensured Butte's success as the leading producer of copper in the United States.

With a population of 14,000 people in 1885, Butte supported banks, schools, a hospital, a fire department, churches, and a water company. Copper production and the development of mining companies continued until the turn of the century, when Daly joined with the Rockefeller family to form the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, one of the early twentieth-century trusts. By the first decade of the twentieth century Butte was a major rail hub, with four railroads connecting in the city. Amalgamated, having bought out other mining companies in Butte, changed its name back to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1915.

The labor movement was important to Butte's history. The Butte Miner's Union was formed in 1878 to protect miners from the dangers of working underground. The Butte delegation was the largest at the 1906 founding convention of the International Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago. During the early twentieth century the union's power began to decline when mining companies were consolidated and management became indifferent to worker demands. The dynamiting of the union hall in 1914 and the lynching of an IWW organizer in 1917 led to seven years of martial law in Butte. The worst hardrock mining disaster in American history, the Spectacular Mine Fire, also took place in 1917, killing 168 miners.

Present-day Butte neighborhoods such as Dublin Gulch, Finntown, Chinatown, and Corktown attest to the city's diverse ethnic roots. Since the community's earliest days immigrants from all over the world settled in Butte to work the mines. When the placer camp was started in 1864, Chinese miners were the first to arrive. Later came Cornish, Irish, and Welsh laborers, and for a time Irish workers formed the dominant group. Then Serbs, Croats, French Canadians, Finns, Scandinavians, Jews, Lebanese, Mexicans, Austrians, Germans, and African Americans added to the ranks of miners.

Mining Declines; Economy Diversifies

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry continued to dominate the Butte economy. Changes began to take place, however; underground mining gave way to pit mining in the 1950s when high-grade copper-ore deposits were exhausted and above-ground exploration for low-grade ore began. In 1976 Anaconda was bought by Atlantic Richfield Company; in 1983 the mines were completely closed. Unemployment rose to more than 17 percent and Butte's survival seemed threatened. That same year a task force composed of government and business leaders was formed to ensure a future for Butte through a concerted effort to diversify the city's economy. Since then, mines have reopened, a transportation hub was built at the Port of Montana, the U.S. High Altitude Sports Center was located in the city, and several high-technology firms have established facilities in the area. These efforts at economic stability, diversification, and growth have been recognized by the Montana Ambassadors, the Pacific Institute, the U.S. Corporation for Economic Development, and Newsweek magazine, which commented in an article about the area's steady decline and stagnant economy, that "in Montana, Butte has engineered the most dramatic turnaround."

Historical Information: Butte Silver-Bow Public Archives, PO Box 81, Butte, MT 59703; telephone (406)497-6226