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The Story of Butte

You’re a little boy, brought to Butte by your parents at age 5. It’s 1889. Montana has just become a state and you’ve spent three days on a train, traveling across mostly barren landscapes only to step off the train into a smoke-filled metropolis in the middle of nowhere. You look around you at the mountains rising tall in the distance, absent of trees and vegetation.

Outside those mountains lies the world, inside lies Butte.

Wooden headframes dot the landscape, groaning as they haul men and ore out of the earth. Smokestacks rise like monstrous fingers, belching black smoke into the sky. Train whistles shriek, steam hisses, trolleys race up and down the hill, the sound of their bells softened by the tall buildings that fill the streets above you.

As you walk between your parents to your new home, men in expensive suits rub elbows with miners in dirty overalls and women in red, newsboys stand on street corners heralding the latest news curated by one Company or the other. Although you’re too young to understand the politics that run this city, you hear about men called Marcus Daly and WA Clark – men they call the Copper Kings. The title reminds you of the copperhead snake, and before you can think another thought, the newsboys shout “Anaconda Standard!” – and you ask yourself where in the dickens your parents brought you. 

As you grow, the noise of the mines no longer bothers you. Instead you find yourself dreading when your city falls silent. Strikes mean hunger, and you know your mother isn’t truly angry when she lashes out, quick as a snakebite, while your father paces. Fear does strange things to people.

You grow up among children whose fathers go into the mines and never come out again. Weekly funerals and the daily grind of a city throbbing with wealth - a wealth that always feels just out of reach to you.

You lie about your age to mine at 16, eager to earn a decent wage. You’re given a pair of coveralls and a carbide lamp, and told to muck at the 100th level of the Burlington Mine. It’s hot down there, even in the dead of winter – and the mine is a maze. Crosscuts and drifts branch this way and that, following the haphazard path of the copper veins. It smells like sulfur and earth, rocks and b.o. 

By the time you’re 30, in 1914, Butte’s population has swollen to nearly one hundred thousand, more than twice the population of any other city in the five states of the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. The city is thriving, having survived the war of the Copper Kings, strikes, economic shut downs, and the rise of labor unions – all in the name of powering the world’s new electrical grid. 

Being a miner means a decent wage: $3.50 a day, but that’s little consolation as you watch the price of copper soar as the Great War demands more and more copper. The Company rakes in millions while you toil for a wage that has remained stagnant since before you were born. And what's more, you’ve started to cough from all the dust you’ve inhaled underground. 

Tensions rise in Butte as you and the other miners like you butt heads with those who sign your checks. In June 1914, at the Miners Union Day parade, the crowd grows agitated. You tell your wife to take the children home. Ten days of fighting follow, and before the night’s over on June 23, 1914, the Union Hall on Main Street explodes, dynamited into rubble. 

Your union dissolves into chaos, leaving the Company in complete control. Now, the company says, you need a rustling card to work: no card, no work. 

In August 1917, as you’re rounding out your 33rd year, the national labor leader Frank Little is murdered, hung from a railroad trestle right down the road from your house. The national guard is called in, and by the time you’re too sick to work at age 40, in 1920, unionism in Butte is at an end. The company has total control over the city, the state, and parts of the international economy as well. 

In 1921, at age 41, your family lays you to rest in the Mountain View Cemetery, drowned by the dust you inhaled over twenty fives years underground. Your children, nearly grown now, make their own way in the world, a world powered by Butte copper on the backs of men like you, and you can only hope that you’ve helped make it a good one.

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