About Butte America
Butte is not your typical mining town. At the end of the 19th century, Butte mines were the largest producers of copper in the world, with the dominant share of the copper wire used to electrify the United States and the rest of the world coming from this one mountainside. Once home to some of the wealthiest industrialists in America, the majority of residents today live modest lives amidst dwindling industry and declining wages. Butte began as many other gold and silver mining towns, but the discovery of copper, and the nation’s new-found demand for the material, brought in east and west coast industrialists. When the competing mining companies were consolidated to form the Anaconda Mining Corporation, it became one of the largest industrial corporations in the world—and during peak copper production employed over 16,000 men. After a long, slow decline in production and copper markets, the eventual abandonment of the copper mines left behind the largest superfund site in the country, including hundreds of miles of underground tunnels that today are filled with water contaminated with every heavy metal imaginable, and will continue so in-perpetuity.
My first impressions of Butte were from driving by on the Interstate and it struck me as an incredible ecological disaster, and a town literally falling apart at the seams. Initially the place held no interest for me, but after visiting the town several times with students, I have since fallen in love with how unique and complex the town is. Similar to many western towns dying after the closure of mines and railroads, Butte’s once thriving economic base no longer exists. The town remains a center of blue-collar and union values within the conservative state of Montana; and Butte residents continue to celebrate its tumultuous “hard scrabble” history with pride, even as it reinvents itself and a new generation comes of age.
This series of photographs focuses on the architectural and industrial landscape of Butte’s east side neighborhoods and the people who live there. These communities grew up around mining head-frames, as miners and their families sought residences close to the sweaty underground shafts that were their workplaces. The neighborhoods are in a period of flux—some falling apart after years of neglect and abandonment, and others preserved to maintain their historic integrity as Butte struggles to preserve evidence of its colorful past. These modest miners homes are the physical legacy of what was once the most ethnically diverse city in the Rocky Mountain west.
Between 1870 and 1910, Butte’s population was comprised of the highest proportion of European–born immigrants of any city in the nation, and these newcomers built homes, churches, fraternal halls and entire neighborhoods that comprise the crazy quilt of Butte’s economic and ethnic districts. After decades of pit-mine expansion that swallowed up entire settlements (such as Meaderville), the Butte city council enacted an official policy in 1977 to preserve the city’s historic downtown business district and effectively halt as much destruction of existing architecture as possible. In addition to residential and commercial architecture, the Butte community pressured officials to preserve the industrial architecture—specifically the neighborhood mining head-frames—as testament to the city’s past.
Butte is struggling to redefine itself as a place of interest, based largely on its epic history—one that is tied to the booming prosperity of the nation in the early 1900s—as much as it is to its current status as the epitome of man-made ecological devastation as the largest superfund site in the nation (i.e., Clark Fork Superfund Site). In conjunction with Anaconda, Butte and its surrounds constitute the largest historic preservation district in the nation, with over 6,000 properties. How does a community of 30,000 people cope with this legacy and define for itself a plan for future sustainability? It is these issues that I hope to address with through my photographs. By focusing on portraiture of local residents, and images of Butte’s vernacular architecture, I hope to inspire viewers to consider how the impacts a community’s past shape its present state of cultural, economic and ecological health, and at the same time, demonstrate that it is the willful enactment of cultural ideals by people in that community that ultimately determines a course of development or decline.