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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Butte’s cash cow

Posted by on March 30 at 12:59 PM

The Berkely Pit, America’s largest body of toxic water located in Butte, Montana, is becoming a popular tourist destination—so popular that admission to gaze at the toxic pit doubled this year (from $1 to $2 dollars).

Tainted water covers about 500 acres, goes to a depth of some 900 feet and is toxic enough that it was blamed for the deaths of 342 migratory snow geese that landed on the water in 1995.
Admission fees brought in about $18,600 between June 15 and Sept. 30 last year. Some of the proceeds will go toward improvements intended to make the site even more attractive to tourists.

Splash Mountain, anyone?

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I've been there. You walk through a short, dark tunnel in the hillside and come out on an observation platfrom that overlooks the "lake." The "water" is orange. There were these large loudspeaker devices around the perimeter that we were told were designed to scare off birds so they wouldn't land in it and get melted.

I recommend it and Butte in general as tourist destinations. A stranger town I have not seen. It was a mining boom town a hundred years ago and now the population is a fraction of what it once was, and a lot of the old buildings are still around (and can be purchased cheap: The soil there is generally so toxic that developers aren't interested.)

Butte looks like a scary death village from the freeway, which is the closest I have ever gotten to it. Even after driving and not seeing another human being for two hours, somehow coming across Butte is not a relief.

loves me some Butte!

I bought my first porno magazine at some random place in "Historic Uptown Butte" shortly after turning 18.

I've heard that downtown Butte is actually pretty great, and I have some friends who grew up there and always speak of it fondly. But there's nothing about the way it's perched at an angle above the freeway and looks exactly like a fake dollhouse town with no people inside of it that doesn't freak me out.

2 summers ago me and my family ran into wim wenders film crew as they were filming his latest there. god it was like a zombie town from 28 days. just creepy.

OH OH and we can't forget about Our Lady of the Rockies!

Oh god I HAD forgotten about it until just now. Shiver.

HMA: that must have been "don't come knocking". Awesome!

And for those who don't know what it is, "Our Lady of the Rockies" is a huge metal dashboard Mary that was constructed by a local Butte welder who'd never tried his hand at "sculpture" before. The fingers on her hands are made from the exhaust pipe usually used for Cat tractors. (But you'd have to take the bumpy ride all the way up there to see that aspect of it.) It's perched high above the town on the East Ridge of the Rockies.

Sure, Butte's a strange place. Always has been. Unfortunately, it's been getting even stranger as some very weird people have decided to move there. Too many of those newcomers and not enough of the old-timers. But it's my home town. So... You just gotta stand it.

Formerly the Richest Hill on Earth, Butte USA is now the Richest Hole on Earth, Courtney Love excepted. And speak no evil of Our Lady of Evel Knievel. Cut the Holy Mother some slack.

The sequel: Almost forgot that Butte is/was Centralia East. During the Progressive Era (Palmer Raids, Espionage & Sedition Acts, eugenics), Butte lynched a Wobbly wannabe for the crime of being too progressive.

The highlight of my numbered trips to Butte was a personal tour of the Dumas Brothel, the longest running brothel in the US, turned museum. So amazing, it has one of the oldest (if not the oldest?) known vibrators, old, musty "cribs", and lots of ghost stories. The owner is crazy. It should still be open, but I did see that Rudy (the crazy owner) was trying to ebay it? At 85,000, I think it's a steal.

Can anyone recommend a good book about the history of Butte? I drove through it for the first time since I was about 8 last week and was absolutely intrigued. I was coming back from my grandmother's funeral in Wyoming (so was already a little on the sad side) and decided to take a quick car tour. I got a feeling for what Butte must have once been, but had now become. It was kind of depressing. I can tell it must have some fascinating stories.

Montana: High, Wide, & Handsome (aka Lonesome), by Joseph Kinsey Howard. Book was Banned in Butte.

The War of the Copper Kings: Builders of Butte and Wolves of Wallstreet. Written by C.B. (ahem) Glasscock. No fey pun intended.

High, Wide and Handsome is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. Might be the best state history ever written.

For me, the most amazing thing about Butte is the way it ate itself. The main pit started out way out of town, but as it got bigger and bigger, it got closer and closer, until literally streets, houses, sidewalks, lampposts, mailboxes started falling into it. Nothing stops the lust for (m) ore.

But the pit didn't really start up on the edge of town. It almost immediately gobbled up the "suburb" of Meaderville, just east of Butte proper.

Meaderville was the Italian section of town and home to its best restaurants -- which were reportedly very good restaurants. But all of that and the bars and churches were quickly torn down. Some of the restaurants relocated down to "the flats", but they never managed to recreate the little Italy that they had going on before the pit gobbled it up.

Butte is mostly an Irish town. Its orignal miner families were imported en-masse by the Irish-emigrant owner of the largest mine. Many of them came from an area of Cork where generations had worked the mines before they played out in the 19th Century. There were also plenty of miners from Croatia, Serbia, and Poland. But all of them were fed by the Italians.

Although his stop in Butte just one chapter in the book, I'd recommend Pete McCarthy's "The Road to McCarthy" for its worldwide travelogue of the Irish diaspora.

Not just the Irish, via Marcus Daly, but also Cousin Jacks from Cornwall. Plus the Croats, Serbs, Poles, and Italians that you mention, all thrown into a roiling diaspora stew watched over by a malign diety, The Company. Imported life was a cheap factor input in the Anaconda business model.

As for uptown and the flats, uptown became expendable after the Cornish pasties places closed down & after Tony the Trader was closed down.

The_Pope_Of_Chili_Town: Check back issues of'Montana, the Magazine of Western History' at the kool Koolhaas glass-house SPL. Recent articles about the backstreet cribs, mentioned above, & about Butte's Chinese community, c. 1890.

The Jade Pagoda's probably looking for a new soup recipe.

Yeah. The place just ain't the same since Tony the Trader closed down. But the pasties at Gamer's were still pretty good the last time I checked. The new owners got rid of the open cash register, but it's pretty much unchanged otherwise.

And my sister does her best to maintain some of that ol' polyglot spirit of the place with her "County Celtic and Beyond" store just off the corner of Park and Montana.

Thanks for the advice. I grew up in Missoula, but never really got a feel for other towns like Butte.

If life's just a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the Berkely pits? (Well, there was this diving board ...)

Check my post elsewhere about Jared Diamond & the collapse of Montana "civilization." Another pretty good book about the pathology of (eastern) Montana is Bad Land by Seatttle's Jonathan Raban. James J. Hill lured the unsuspecting into Montana's parched paradise, beyond Miles City, & let them eat dust, & let them die. Survivors moved to Seattle.

I've visited the Pit many times (including before it started filling up with water), and have never paid to do so. Most recently was two summers ago, when there was available a little pamphlet "debunking" popular myths regarding the Pit.

Most hilarious was the claim that the toxic water would never rise high enough to start fucking things up, despite the Pit's filling in faster than it's being pumped, because...there would be large fines if it did.

Check out Look For Me In Butte, by Mark Ross. One of the truly great folk albums you'll ever get your ears upon.

Can anyone recommend a good book about the history of Butte?

Dashiell Hammett set Red Harvest in Butte, although in the novel he calls it "Poisonville."

If you drive about 20 miles due west of Butte to Anaconda, you can see huge, hulking mounds of black slag next to the four-lane highway. (Anaconda makes Butte look clean.) The local chamber of commerce puts the stuff in little plastic bags and sells them to tourists: It's called a "Bag o' Slag," it costs about two bucks, and I recommend it as the perfect souvenir of Montana's mining heritage.

BTW, as an old ranchhand once informed me, those poisoned little streams thread their way through millions of acres of prime ranch country. So, America ... how do you like your beef?

... how do you like your beef?

Stirred, not shaken. Again, check Jared Daimond's recent book, Collapse, for a useful discussion of the 1872 mining rules that allowed the Anaconda Company to rule Montana's water. Also a good duscussion there of riparian rules in the West.

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