Butte Montana once was the butt of FBI jokes and derided for the gaping open-pit crater on its northeast flank. “Butte America” is nothing if not resilient. Now the fiercely proud mining city has reinvented itself as a tribute to its rowdy, tawdry past.
Butte Montana is a gritty, work-a-day living-history museum. It is authentic, unvarnished and unpretentious. The mix of weathered gothic mansions, miners’ shacks, neon bars and hidden eateries stand in stark contrast to classic Montana tourism postcards. Butte is an acquired taste. And that’s just what sets it apart.
While tapping the world’s richest gold, silver and copper veins, Silver Bow was once Montana’s most populous county. Hence the numeral “1” identifier on license plates. In the 1920s, more than 100,000 people of at least a dozen nationalities toiled in Butte. The city boasted roughly one saloon for every 100 residents and a notorious red-light district. Evangelist William Biederwolf once declared Butte “the lowest sinkhole of vice in the west.”
Anaconda Co. shuttered the mine in the 1980s due to falling copper prices and “The Richest Hill on Earth” appeared destined to become a ghost town. But Butte, no stranger to wild cycles of boom and bust, prosperity and tragedy, refused to submit. Mining magnate mansions were restored. Bordellos were reborn as museums and homes. Hotels were renovated. Many of the 20-plus towering mine-shaft headframes received a makeover with festive red lighting.
In fact, the entire city is a National Historic Landmark District – one of the nation’s largest. Even the defunct mine, the Berkeley Pit, is earning its keep again. Tourists pay $2 to gaze into the toxic abyss. Oh, and while imbibing in Butte remains an ingrained pastime, dining in Butte isn’t bad, either.
Park ‘n Stroll in Uptown
Uptown Butte’s heaved streets are lined with weathered brick and colorful “painted ladies” Victorian miners homes. College students and work-a-day residents inhabit many of these homes, with small businesses tucked in between. You’ll find creative and tempting restaurants in the mix, including the Park & Main Cafe, where breakfast is made from scratch. Homemade sticky buns and orange cinnamon rolls complement an impressive lineup of lattes and specialty coffee drinks.
Sprinkled amid the working-class Victorians reminiscent of San Francisco are statuesque mining-magnate mansions. Most notable is the 34-room Copper King Mansion. Now a privately owned B&B, the Copper King is a spectacular Romanesque Revival castle built in the 1880s. Its architect was mining magnate W.A. Clark, perhaps the most dominant of the area’s three notorious copper kings. In addition, about a block away is the Clark Chateau, built in 1898 by the same chap for his son, Charles, and wife, Katherine. Most of the 1,000 antiques in the interior are from the 1920s to 1940s, when a family named Murray resided there.
Continuing eastward, Mercury and Galena streets, once called “The Line”, was one of America’s liveliest red-light districts. Capturing this history is the Dumas Brothel, the country’s longest continually operating bordello when it closed in 1982. From there, a short walk away is the Mah Wai Museum and its remnants of Butte’s brisk early Chinatown days. Some 2,000 Chinese immigrants were part of a vibrant business district specializing in laundry, dry goods and Asian foods.
Speaking of foods, for lunch it’s a virtual tossup between the Broadway Café and Vu Villa Pizza. Pizza is the signature dish at both. The former is slightly funkier and popular for its microbrews and wines. The latter has a college-hangout vibe due to its proximity to Montana Tech.
After a bite to eat, continue the walking history tour at the fascinating Piccadilly Museum of Transportation. Car buffs appreciate the museum’s variety, but native son Evel Knievel’s memorabilia is the big draw. Want to read about Knievel and Butte’s colorful history? Second Edition Books is an inviting place to browse more than 30,000 used-book titles.
Before dinner, catch the fusion of spirits and spirited ambiance during Happy Hour at Headframe Spirits, our favorite Montana distillery. Order from a lengthy list of crafted cocktails made from gin. We like their Neversweat Whiskey and Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liquer. Next up: Supper at the upscale Uptown Café. The Uptown’s mantra: “Civilized Dining in the Wild, Wild West”.
Dig into Butte’s mining history
Looking at hardscrabble Butte, it’s hard to imagine many folks tilting vegetarian. But flit into the Hummingbird Cafe and you’ll find a tofu scramble, hemp granola with berries and a portabella omelet – along with more traditional breakfasts.
After breakfast, hop in your car and start with a quick trip to the Berkeley Pit. For $2, peer into a yawning hole representing a small window into the city’s post-pick-and-shovel mining history. From there, head west and take the short wrap-around drive on the Montana Tech campus to the MBMG Mineral Museum. What began in 1901 with a few hundred specimens has sky-rocketed to more than 1,000 on display. Standing out: a huge gold nugget. Save your longest block of time for the World Museum of Mining. It’s on the old Orphan Girl mine site on the back side of the ‘M’ butte overlooking the city. Walk around a model mining village and take the chillingly unvarnished descent into the mine shaft.
Back above ground, a deli sandwich at the Front Street Market will sate midday hunger. In a picnicking mood? Load up on their salamis, gourmet cheeses, homemade soups and a cork-popping array of wines. If your cholesterol is manageable, any Butte culinary bucket list must include the no-frills Freeway Tavern. Its regionally famous wop chop gets its name — and is socially acceptable — because its creator is Italian.
After immersing yourself in Butte history, reward the kids for their patience with a full afternoon at Fairmont Hot Springs, It’s about 15 miles west toward Anaconda. The soothing waters of Olympic-sized indoor and outdoor pools and two soaking pools will offset the squeals of children. Before returning to Butte, take a long and tall look the smelter stack in Anaconda. It’s the tallest man-made structure in Montana. Due to its toxic past, the stack is inaccessible even though it is a state park.
For dinner, more befitting Butte’s persona is the Casagranda Steakhouse and Guido’s Bar in a 1900 warehouse. Though the menu is typical of a steakhouse, Casagranda does boast Sushi Night from 6-9 p.m. every Thursday. Locals and out-of-towners alike favor the culinary diversion, which is complete with Sapporo beer.
St. Patrick’s Day Festival (March), Montana Folk Festival (July) and Evel Knievel Days (August).