What city can boast of resting atop upwards of five thousand miles of tunnels? Yes, tunnels. Old mining tunnels right below the very sidewalks and pavement that divide and grid this fair but worn-out city. Tunnels that were gouged through the dirt and bedrock in the race to find copper in the late 1800’s, then later used by businessmen in the mining heyday to allow them discreet access to their brothels of choice. The tunnels were the bane and joy of the Chinese launderers who fought one another for control of them. The city? Butte, Mont., of course.
What city can boast of such a varied passal of denizens, originally hailing from places like Ireland, Italy, the Czech Republic, China, Croatia, and many more, creating a melting-pot society second only to that of New York City? Laborers from all over the world, upon entering the gates of the United States at Ellis Island in New York, were slapped with destination stickers reading “Butte, U.S.A.”, and sent to the west-bound trains. The Irish population of Butte is still so large today, you can hardly turn around without rubbing elbows with a McLeary or an O’Neil and you can certainly shake your stick at a fair number of bars and taverns with a definite and authentic flavor of the Emerald Isle herself. Ahhhsweet Butte.
If you’re not careful, Butte will hook you; if not with her sad and dilapidated architecture as you wander the uptown hills (the oldest known brothel built in the brick Victorian Brotheleze style still leans heavily, one foot in the grave, on East Mercury Street), then with her gorgeous palette of a colorful, vivid past. The remains of a mining history are still scattered on the hills above the city; black steel headframes, once noisy and busy lifting miners and their donkeys (Yes! donkeys!) up and down, to and from the depths, now rest wearily, cobwebs and birds nests their only passengers now.
If you’re not careful, you will want to know more about this strange, haughty city that at one time was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth.” That nickname was well earned; William A. Clark, one of the original copper kings of Montana, building his empire on a country newly electrified, had a lavish mansion built with the finest materials he could find, including copper from his own mines. The building still stands today, and is still extravagant by today’s standards, sporting a hand-carved stairway depicting emblems and scenes from different nations. The home also contains a third-floor ballroom and a bathroom with an “all-over body” shower; made to order for Mr. Clark who liked the many different shower heads that gave the user a new sense of getting clean.
Butte still remains a relatively unfettered jewel in the modern United States that one can go explore and discover what life was like back in the rowdy, bawdy, ballsy West. Just be sure to leave all preconceived notions back at the Interstate exit and prepare yourself for a visit back in time.