Mining in Butte: The Good, the Bad and the Super Toxic

When we set off on this journey two and a half years ago, we didn’t realized it would be a lesson in mining. We have seen gold, silver, copper and iron mines across the west and in Minnesota. We have been underground numerous times and have looked out at open pit mines with sadness. I can even write a coherent paragraph about mining with very little fact checking. Immersing ourselves in mining wasn’t the goal but here we are in Butte, at the foot of the Richest Hill in the World.


We toured the Copper King Mansion, home of William Andrews Clark. A former school teacher, Clark avoided being drafted into the Civil War and traveled west to pursue mining. He made a little money mining in Colorado and Bannack, Montana but made much more by establishing a trade route to Salt Lake City and overcharging other miners for needed supplies.

Clark purchased six area mines and became one of three copper kings in Montana.

Clark’s business interests were varied and he was once the second richest man in America. His railroad interests intersected in an area that became Las Vegas, Nevada.  The encompassing Clark County was named for him, as was Clarkdale, Arizona.

The Clark family gave philanthropically to causes around the country including museums, a library, a memorial home, an orphanage, a camp, and an art collection.

Less admirably,  Clark bribed Montana legislators to send him to the US Senate reportedly saying “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” The US Senate refused to seat him because of the scandal but one term later Clark won election and served as the US Senator from Montana.

Construction began on the Butte mansion in 1884 and was completed 4 years later at a cost of a half million dollars – a half day’s wage for Clark. It was one of seven mansions the family owned, six in the US and one in Paris. After family members living in the home died, it and interior items were sold. The mansion served a variety of purposes until it was purchased by the Cote family 40 years ago.


The Cote family spent much time and money restoring the mansion and furnishing it with period pieces. A few Clark family items were purchased or donated back. Today it is a reasonably priced bed and breakfast with rooms that must be vacated for tours between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.


We also visited the World Museum of Mining. It has acres of exhibits and a recreated mining town. They offer an underground tour but we chose to pass this time.


There is a large exhibit of the many rocks and minerals found in the Butte area.


Randy’s Ben and Jerry’s T-shirt glowed like the minerals under the ultraviolet light!


Labor Unions once flourished in Butte and the city was called the Gibraltar of Labor. When the mines were sold to corporate America, the labor situation worsened and became dangerous. During World War I the emphasis was “just get the ore out” and the labor situation deteriorated even more. There was a period of union suppression until the New Deal allowed for unions once more.


The Granite Mountain Memorial provides the opportunity to remember 168 miners who died in the Speculator Mine from an accidental fire and the subsequent smoke and poisoned air. The memorial site has audio readings of letters the trapped miners wrote to loved ones during the day or two before they died. The accident on June 8, 1917 remains the world’s largest hard rock mining disaster.

p1070146Also commemorated are the 2500 Butte miners who died from mining related causes between 1870 and 1983.  That’s a lot of men.


Mining in Butte has the good (wealth and employment), the bad ( accidents, illness, death and labor unrest) and the super toxic.  See the Berkley Pit….


Once underground mining strategies became less profitable, the Berkley Pit was dug to continue mining copper and molybdenum, a steel hardener. Operations began in 1955 and were shut down in  1982.   The pumps keeping ground water out of the pit and out of the underground shafts were then turned off. The water level in the pit rose and was found to be toxic with high levels of minerals, sulphuric acid and arsenic.  The pH levels measure 2.5 instead of the normal 7.

The Berkley Pit has been a Superfund Site since the 1980s with efforts focused on cleaning the water before it reaches critical levels and backfills into the Clark Fork River, projected to happen in 2023.

p1070131This plant has cleaned the water enough to be used in other mining operations,  slightly delaying the rise,  but not enough to be released.


The ramifications of failing seem disastrous for Butte and the environments downstream.   Residents seem to have confidence in the scientists working on the problem.  Let’s hope they are right!

About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mining in Butte: The Good, the Bad and the Super Toxic

  1. Mark McClelland says:

    Mining can certainly be a two-edged sword, can’t it? During our summer in Leadville we learned of the fabulous wealth that mining brought to that region of Colorado, but also learned of the environmental devastation. Much of the area around Leadville was Superfund sites until recently, and there is still ample evidence of that.

    I didn’t realize that the Berkley Pit is an ongoing environmental issue. I hope that they get it figured out.

  2. pw says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only old guy still rock’in (pun intended) the tie dye☮

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s