By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner
When I was a child, even though I proclaimed disdain for Butte, I had a morbid fascination with it every time we drove through it on 1-90. I never had any interest for my parents to stop. If anything, I wanted my dad to accelerate. It always seemed such a desolate place, a mile high in the mountains, with few trees nearby. I never knew Butte before the Berkeley Pit, before mining collapsed. The few times we stayed in Butte for swim meets, we stayed in the flats away from the old mining part of town. I had never realized that Butte was one of Montana’s true treasures, waiting in plain sight for me to discover.
There had been hints of the hidden Butte when I spoke of it a few times with my dad or grandma. My grandma had lived there during part of her youth and she spoke of a beautiful park called Columbia Gardens. My dad spoke of the wonderful restaurants and ethnic neighborhoods that had been destroyed when the Anaconda Company decided to do open pit mining and created the Berkeley Pit. I had done a report on Marcus Daly, one of the copper kings, in seventh grade. From the research I did, I had a tremendous amount of respect for the miners of Butte. However, respect for the miners had never fully translated into admiration for the city itself.
Thankfully, I began to research Montana history, especially Montana in the 1890’s to early 1900’s, for a book I am writing. When I did, I couldn’t believe what Butte had been: A metropolis in the mountains. The largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle with fashion and entertainments to rival any except maybe New York. The more I learned about Butte, the more I knew I needed to visit. When I first drove around the Uptown part of Butte last year, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. There were so many of the places I had read about. I could imagine the streetcars roaring by. The women and men in their fancy clothes sauntering into the Hennessy building. The men in their work clothes vying for a spot at the bar at the M&M. Or the women going to the Creamery Café with their booths for ladies. It was glorious. We spent a few hours and I hoped that it would be enough for my research.
When I returned to the East Coast last year after that trip, I continued my research. I read wonderful books on Butte, including:
- The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925 by David Emmons
- Copper Chorus: Mining Politics and the Montana Press, 1889-1959 by Dennis Swibold
- Lost Butte by Richard Gibson
- The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906 by Michael P. Malone
The more I read, the more I wanted to return to Butte. When I traveled home this summer, I had forewarned my parents that I needed to spend a few days in Butte. “A few days???” my mother gasped. A few hours was the more usual time period for Butte. However, I wanted to explore. I wanted to go to the World Museum of Mining and do their underground tour. I wanted to eat at the M&M, go to the Clark Mansion. Walk around again. Drive around the streets with no purpose except to enjoy the city. I couldn’t wait to go to Butte.
Finally, we drove into Butte and my dad showed me where my great-grandmother’s home used to be near Harrison Ave. He described animatedly watching the circus come to town and the elephants walking down to the flats to put up the big tents. He spoke of the calliope playing lovely, whimsical music as the circus act moved down the street. We started the climb up to the Uptown and my excitement grew.
Our first stop was lunch at the M&M. The M&M Cigar Store opened in 1890 and was opened continuously (yes, that does mean 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for 113 years. After a short hiatus, it is now open again continuously. I had heard about the M&M ever since I was a kid and couldn’t wait to go there. It was fantastic, with good food, incredibly friendly people and old photos from the archives enlarged and displayed above the lunch counter and bar.
Then, my mom, Aunt and I wandered around. I had already done a good “walk-about” last year, but I had a better idea of what I needed to learn for my book so it helped to orient me. I marveled again and again at the beautiful brick buildings and enjoyed reading the National Historic Register placards on many of the buildings. We ventured into a few antique shops hoping, unsuccessfully, to find treasures.
We continued our journey up to Centerville, stopping at the Mountain Con to look at the old mine headframe and to see the view. From there, we continued on back streets to Walkerville, making our way slowly down the main street. I had us back track toward Centerville because I wanted to find a church that I thought should be in the area and I was so excited to find the St. Lawrence O’Toole church. It is one of the older Catholic Churches in Butte and it was built with funds donated by the miners. We weren’t able to go inside, but it was wonderful to see it.
The following day we went to the World Museum of Mining and did their Underground Tour. I will dedicate a blog solely to that as it was awesome. Butte is a fascinating city with the friendliest people you could hope to meet. If you are ever on 1-90 and passing through Butte, it’s well worth a visit. A simple lunch at the M&M, a drive up Main Street or a visit to the World Museum of Mining will help you discover one of Montana’s treasures.
© Ramona Flightner