Montana: Butte Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Famous for its copper production, Butte dominated world output from 1877 to 1920; its mining heritage resulted in designations as Montana’s first Cultural Heritage Area and a National Historic Landmark District of 4,500 civic, residential, mining, and business structures.

Site Office

Butte Chamber, Visitor, and Transportation Center

1000 George Street

Butte, MT 59701

ph.: (800) 735-6814; (406) 723-3177

fax: (406) 723-1215

Web site: www.butteinfo.org

e-mail: butteinfo@butteinfo.org

Butte began its existence as a gold placer camp in the 1860’s only to carve out its place in mining history two decades later as a preeminent copper town, which grew to dominate world production from 1887 to 1920. As Butte came of age it became recognized for both its mining barons–and their “war of the copper kings” waged over “the richest hill on earth”–as well as its miners, whose labor organizations brought Butte a designation as the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” After the mining industry was consolidated, labor and management faced off in a series of conflicts while Butte’s residents–to counter the political and economic domination of Anaconda Copper Mining Company–looked for leadership to various third parties and labor organizations, including the Socialist Party, which governed the community from 1911 to 1914. By the time copper production peaked in Butte in 1920, however, the power of third parties and unionism in Butte had been squelched.

Early History

Butte was neutral territory frequented by a variety of intermountain Indian tribes before gold prospectors began flocking to the area in the 1860’s. In 1864, the year Montana became a separate U.S. territory, the first placer mine was established near Butte, but within a few years the gold was played out; by 1870 Butte had nearly faded into obscurity. A few miners such as William Farlin believed there were riches remaining in Butte’s quartz deposits, and in 1874 Farlin gave rise to a new mining era after removing ore rich in silver and copper from his Asteroid claim. William A. Clark, an investor with interests in banking and mining, provided the financing for Farlin to develop his claim about the same time that Clark, who would later become known as one of Butte’s copper kings, purchased and began developing a trio of his own claims.

By 1876 silver ore had been successfully treated for profitable extraction, and Butte City, named for the nearby conical peak Big Butte, was home to one thousand residents. That year Marcus Daly, who would soon become Clark’s archrival, arrived in Butte to inspect properties for possible development by the Walker brothers, Salt Lake City entrepreneurs. Daly bought and then managed the Alice Mine for the Walkers. By the end of the decade, a two hundred-foot-deep shaft had been sunk at the Alice Mine, a twenty-stamp silver mill was relocated from Utah to Butte, and the Washoe process for treating ores, first developed at Nevada’s famous Comstock Lode, was introduced into local mining operations. Meanwhile at the request of Daly, the Colorado & Montana Smelting Company in 1879 constructed a Butte smelter, found indispensable in treating the area’s minerals with their high concentrations of arsenic.

During the 1870’s, while Clark was bringing in investors from Colorado, Andrew Jackson Davis, another banker-miner, courted East Coast capitalists who needed copper to service markets for electrical conduits. Davis invested in several Butte properties including the Lexington Mine, which became a great silver producer and helped him become Montana’s first millionaire as well as owner of Butte’s First National Bank. By 1881 Davis had sold his Lexington Mine for one million dollars, formed the Parrot Silver and Copper Company and built a smelter.

While Butte’s mine owners were developing necessary technology, its miners were organizing, and in 1878 Aaron C. Witter, credited as the father of Montana unions, helped found the Butte Workingmen’s Union, later renamed Butte Miner’s Union (BMU). The BMU successfully fought off a threat by owners to reduce wages and soon became the West’s most recognized labor organization, able to guarantee workers a daily minimum wage of $3.50.

The Anaconda Mine

In 1880 Daly sold his interest in the Walker mines and purchased the Anaconda Mine, first developed for silver by Michael Hickey who named the property after General Winfield Scott’s military strategy of surrounding the enemy with a snakelike grip. Daly and others discovered that the quartz of Butte was richest in silver near the surface, while erosion had left copper sulfide hundreds of feet deep. The Anaconda Hill area of the Butte mining district contained great seams and veins of copper.

To develop the Anaconda Mine, Daly sought the backing of powerful San Francisco tycoons, including George Hearst, the father of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. With his financiers Daly organized the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) and began accumulating dozens of mining properties in Butte, as well as timberlands and coalfields to provide fuel and lumber for his mining operations. By 1883 Daly’s Anaconda Mine workers had driven a mine shaft 650 feet deep, where they found a copper vein that widened to 100 feet and represented the richest body of copper sulfide yet discovered. The following year Daly built a massive copper reduction works and his own smelter, the Washoe, twenty-six miles west of Butte on Warm Springs Creek, giving birth to a town Daly named Anaconda.

Multiethnic Community

By 1885 the increasing need for workers had brought Butte a population of twenty-two thousand. Both Daly and Clark imported miners by the thousands. Many of Daly’s crews were Irish. In the mid-1880’s Cornishmen began to arrive in Butte, and numerous other nationalities came as well, including Italians, Serbians, Croatians, French Canadians, Finns, Scandinavians, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Austrians, Germans, and black Americans. During this period of population growth, which continued through World War I, Butte became known as one of the country’s toughest towns and was famous for its gambling dens, brothels, and round-the-clock saloons.

With the community growing, workers in many of Butte’s industries followed the miners’ lead in forming unions, and in 1886 these organizations joined together as the Silver Bow Trades and Labor Assembly. Despite tensions between English and Irish workers, the BMU itself grew in force and won the closed shop for Butte mines by 1887, the year silver production peaked in Butte. That year Montana came of age as a copper mining center, producing more than seventy-eight million pounds of copper–with fifty-eight million pounds alone extracted from the Anaconda Mine.

War of the Copper Kings

The so-called War of the Copper Kings began in earnest in 1888 when Daly began using his money and power to thwart Clark’s election as a congressional territorial delegate to represent Montana, which became a state the following year. The initial impetus for the Clark-Daly feud is not certain; it is known that Clark and Daly had worked together in 1884 at Montana’s constitutional convention and along with Helena businessmen C. A. Broadwater and Samuel Hauser became known as the “Big Four” of the Democratic Party.

There were obvious differences between Clark, who had been educated at the Columbia School of Mines and later sought the prestige of both wealth and national political office, and Daly, a self-educated Irish immigrant with an instinct for ore and a vision of creating a fully integrated copper company. In 1888 Clark, who lost each of his bitterly fought bids for a seat in Congress, and Daly employed similar campaign tactics, though. With Clark running the Butte Miner and Daly the Anaconda Standard, the War of the Copper Kings initiated the use of newspapers as political vehicles. They launched twelve years of election campaigns to advance the interests of the mine owners, campaigns dominated by massive street parties financed by the two copper kings, with whiskey and gold the principal campaign tools.

Decline of Silver and Rise of Copper

The Panic of 1893 and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which ended the use of silver as legal tender, helped strengthen Butte’s copper industry while wiping out the remains of silver mining in the community. As Butte’s reputation as a copper community continued to grow, so did the reputation of its labor organizations, and in 1893 miners throughout the West met in Butte and formed the Western Federation of Miners, with the BMU named Local Number One.

In 1894 the second round of the Clark-Daly feud was waged over a statewide runoff vote to determine Montana’s capital, with Daly supporting the town he founded, Anaconda, while Clark adopted Helena’s cause. Ultimately Clark claimed victory and became a hero in Helena after the two copper barons spent nearly three million dollars to influence voters. Throughout the remainder of the 1890’s Clark continued his drive for political office. In 1899 Clark was elected by the Montana Legislature to represent his state in the U.S. Senate, but the Senate, which was lobbied heavily by Daly, refused Clark a seat, citing alleged campaign improprieties.

In 1899 Daly agreed to sell his Anaconda Company to Standard Oil in a deal that created the giant copper trust, Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, and made Daly the new corporation’s president for a brief period. Amalgamated began absorbing its local competitors, and by 1900, the year Daly died, the company was responsible for half of the U.S. output of copper.

The Election of 1900

The election campaign of 1900-1901 marked a major turning point in the copper king wars. Clark formed an alliance with another mining baron, Fritz Augustus Heinze, and Heinze and Clark fused together a number of political factions under the Democratic Party banner–in what the Amalgamated-controlled Anaconda Standard called the “Heinzeantitrustboltingdemocraticlaborpopulist ticket”–to oppose the newly created copper trust, which backed anti-Clark candidates. Clark wanted a friendly state legislature that would send him to the U.S. Senate.

To win the support of labor, Clark and Heinze granted their workers a long-sought-after eight-hour workday and challenged Amalgamated to follow suit; the company refused and labor threw its support to Clark’s faction. Clark won his seat in the U.S. Senate. Soon after the election Clark and Heinze went their separate political ways, and once in Washington Clark proved to be a staunch conservative, serving one term that lasted through 1907.

With Clark in Washington, D.C., Heinze was left as the lone independent mine owner who could challenge the domination of the expanding copper trust. Heinze had originally come to Butte in 1889; he had an engineering degree from the Columbia School of Mines and begun working as a surveyor for the Boston and Montana Company at the age of twenty. In 1892-1893 Heinze opened the Montana Ore Purchasing Company and constructed a large smelter to handle ores of independent companies at reduced rates, making him a favorite of smaller mine owners. He later purchased and leased properties near Amalgamated claims; they became the cause of legal disputes.

The Apex Law

Heinze launched his own five-year battle with Amalgamated in 1898 when he began taking advantage of the Apex Law, which provided that an owner of a claim on which a vein of ore apexed, or touched the surface, could follow that vein wherever it led. Heinze bought off local judge William A. Clancy to ensure favorable rulings in lawsuits filed by Anaconda and had his workers dig deep crosscuts from his claims into Amalgamated’s claims. Heinze’s tactics set off an underground war between his and Amalgamated’s miners; the fighting resulted in the deaths of two men in a dynamite blast.

In 1903 Heinze–who had at his disposal small quantities of stock from various of the newly merged Amalgamated subsidiaries–played his final card and filed suit claiming that the copper trust was built through illegal acquisitions that did not have the approval of minority stockholders. In 1903 Clancy ruled in favor of Heinze in a decision that threatened to strip Amalgamated of much of its power. Amalgamated responded by shutting down most of its operations, locking out fifteen thousand workers, and then demanding that Governor Joseph Toole call a special legislative session to pass a groundbreaking law allowing for the removal of a biased judge from a case. Toole was faced with either appearing the victim of obvious corporate coercion or causing his state economic turmoil; he chose the former, and on November 10, 1903, the Montana Legislature passed a Fair Trials Bill. Heinze quickly lost his political power, and in 1906 he sold his mining operations to Amalgamated in a deal worth about twelve million dollars.

Challenging Anaconda

In the absence of a mine owner who championed worker rights, Butte flirted with a number of labor and political organizations that provided miners some hope of countering the power of the consolidated copper company. Between 1905 and 1920 liberals and laborers were involved in a succession of organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a far left-wing group of labor insurgents known as Wobblies; the Socialist Party, which advocated public ownership of companies; the American Society of Equity, which championed marketing and purchasing cooperatives; and the Nonpartisan League, which advocated state-owned banks and grain elevators and urged increased taxation of the copper trust. In 1906 the IWW held its founding convention in Chicago, and Butte sent the country’s biggest delegation.

In 1910 Clark sold his remaining Butte mining properties to Amalgamated (which again became Anaconda Copper Mining Company that year), giving ACM complete control of Butte mining. Setting the stage for the remaining battle to be fought over Butte–a contest between labor and management–was the rise in popularity of the Socialist Party, which advocated improved living conditions and honest government.

A Short-Lived Socialist Government

In 1911 Butte elected its first Socialist city officials, including Unitarian minister Lewis Duncan, who won the mayoralty. Between 1912 and 1914 Duncan’s party came to control the city council as well, and Butte became one of the largest U.S. cities ever to be governed by Socialists.

During their brief reign the Socialists helped improve the conditions of working-class neighborhoods, building sidewalks and paving streets while also implementing health codes for local businesses. Nonetheless, frustrations with the mines’ working conditions, which had been deteriorating since 1906, led to a split among miners, and by 1914 the BMU was divided among a conservative faction, generally supportive of the company, and a liberal faction, including workers affiliated with the IWW.

Those frustrations exploded in June, 1914, during the city’s annual Union Day celebration, when most union members–sympathetic with the liberal wing of labor–boycotted the parade, watching from sidewalks as only a few hundred BMU members marched. Union insurgents, angered at the “rustler card,” or work permit, system, which in effect allowed the company to blacklist workers, assaulted those marching in the parade, sacked the union hall, and threw union records out the window and onto the street. A new union was quickly formed, and ten days after the parade the old Miners’ Union Hall was destroyed by dynamite.

By August, 1914, a company employment office had been dynamited as well, and ACM was refusing to recognize either the new or the old union. Throughout the summer of 1914 the city appeared on the brink of anarchy. Finally, in September, Governor Samuel V. Stewart declared martial law and the National Guard was sent in to patrol Butte’s streets. Following a grand jury investigation of the summer’s incidents, Duncan and his sheriff, Tim Driscoll, were charged with failure to protect the property of Butte’s citizens and removed from office following impeachment proceedings. Within two years the Socialist Party had all but disappeared from Butte.

The Crisis of 1917

By 1917, Butte’s population had mushroomed to 100,000. The community’s population as well as its copper production peaked that year while World War I brought to a head workers’ bitterness over labor conditions. In the five years preceding 1917 trade agreements had lapsed and not been renewed, collective bargaining had been eliminated in favor of bargaining with individual workers, and an open shop–with workers not required to be union members–had replaced the closed shop. The result was that the IWW moved into Butte in larger numbers to take up the slack in labor leadership.

In June, 1917, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in U.S. history occurred when the Speculator Mine exploded into a fire, after a carbide lamp accidently ignited frayed and oil-soaked electrical insulation. More than 160 miners were killed in the incident, with the loss of lives sparking a spontaneous strike, the beginning of four years of labor unrest. In the wake of the disaster a new organization, the Metal Mine Workers Union, was formed to lead the strike, and by the end of that month fifteen thousand workers had abandoned their jobs.

In July, IWW leader Frank Little came to Butte, and after making a series of antiwar, anticorporation speeches the liberal leader was kidnapped from his boardinghouse, tied to the back of a car, and dragged to the outskirts of town where he was hanged from a railroad trestle. The 1917 strike came to an end a few weeks after Little’s burial, with the arrival of U.S. military troops.

Continuing Labor Struggles

Between 1918 and 1920 the IWW led three more strikes in Butte, all of which were eventually halted after federal troops–which occupied the city six times between 1914 and 1920–were called in to ensure order. During a strike in April, 1920, company guards at the Neversweat Mine fired into a crowd of picketers, killing one and wounding fifteen more, the climax of labor violence in Butte. In January, 1921, when the last troops pulled out of the mining city, unionism and socialism had been drained of much of their power. In retrospect, many Butte historians have agreed that the federal government, along with labor conservatives, broke the back of third parties and unions, which did not win back the closed shop until the New Deal era.

Open-Pit Mining

In the 1920’s ACM began reducing its activities in Butte, opting for investments in Chile and other countries, and Butte’s population began diminishing. The Depression of the 1930’s, coupled with the increased use of mining machinery and foreign competition, brought a slump to Butte and fostered the development of open-pit mining practices, less labor-intensive than underground mining. Open-pit mining began with the opening in 1955 of the Berkeley Pit, which became the world’s most formidable truck-operated open-pit copper mine. The excavation of Berkeley Pit and other nearby projects ultimately changed the face of Butte, eliminating hundreds of homes, apartments, boardinghouses, bars, and corner groceries that once dominated Butte’s east side; in the process entire neighborhoods vanished.

During the early 1970’s the government of Chile expropriated ACM’s South American mining operations, and in 1977 the company, which had lost more than $1 billion, sold its Butte assets to the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). That same year Butte and Silver Bow County merged, creating Butte-Silver Bow, which increasingly looked to supplement the local mining economy with tourism and new industries associated with environmental reclamation. In 1982 ARCO closed the Berkeley Pit and shut off its underground pumps, causing the pit to be flooded. In 1983 ARCO shut down all mining operations in Butte, which had over the course of a century yielded $22 billion in copper, gold, and silver, mostly for outside investors.

In 1985, Montana Resources, owned by millionaire businessman Dennis Washington, acquired all former Anaconda properties but subsequently sold those assets in 1987 to Montana Mining Properties, which reopened several historic underground mines and began to explore for lead, silver, and zinc. In 1993 the Montana House and Senate approved legislation designating Butte as the first Cultural Heritage Area in the state, citing its contribution to the nation’s industrialization and its history of hard-rock mining and smelting.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The Butte area has been well preserved, with enough of the city’s turn-of-the-century structures remaining to give visitors a sense of the community’s historic involvement with frontier capitalism and mining. Butte’s National Historic Landmark District includes the city’s uptown area and portions of residential areas and is highlighted by copper king mansions, mining sites and structures, famous business and civic buildings, and a brothel (finally closed in 1982) located in the Butte’s former red-light district.

Butte’s legacy is further preserved by the nearby World Museum of Mining, the motorized Neversweat and Washoe Railroad which departs from the museum for a six-mile run through historic neighborhoods and mine sites, the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, and the Mineral Museum at the Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology, founded in 1893.

For Further Information
  • Calvert, Jerry W. The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895-1920. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1988. Traces the threads of socialism and progressive parties in Butte from their impetus to their decline. Calvert tends to side with labor and his book has a decidedly socialistic bent.
  • Gutfeld, Arnon. Montana’s Agony: Years of War and Hysteria, 1917-1920. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1979. Suggests that the Anaconda Copper Mining Company posed serious threats to American freedoms in attempting to reduce labor’s power.
  • Malone, Michael P. The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. Provides a more thorough treatment of the economic and political battles waged over Butte Hill. Tends to side with labor.
  • Malone, Michael P., Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Rev. ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. Offers a chapter detailing the relationship between copper and politics in Butte and another chapter outlining the progressive movement in the community.
  • Marcosson, Isaac F. Anaconda. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1957. Offers a boosteristic view of the giant copper company from Anaconda’s point of view; the book includes very little history from the 1906-1920 period.
  • Shovers, Brian, Mark Fiege, Dale Martin, and Fred Quivik. Butte and Anaconda Revisited: An Overview of Early-Day Mining and Smelting in Montana. Billings, Mont.: Bureau of Mines and Geology, 1991. Provides an objective overview of Butte’s history as a mining town, treating the development of the mining industry in depth.
  • Woodbury, Richard. “The Giant Cup of Poison.” Time 151, no. 12 (March 30, 1998): 4. This article discusses the environmental crisis facing this region as a result of acidic mining residues from Butte’s Berkeley Pit copper mine.
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