"She was a bold, unashamed, rootin', tootin', hell roarin' camp in days gone by and she still drinks her liquor straight." -- From a Butte, Montana, historical plaque
Ankle deep in the slimy ditches of the Cornelius F. Kelley, the last working underground mine in the two that copper built, a group of men, sweaty and tight as a fist, is driving a drift or a mine corridor far into "The Richest Hill on Earth," to a point directly beneath the center of the gaping Anaconda open pit mine.
A bitter wind sweeps three quarters of a mile above their heads, blowing snow and dust westward across the bleak remains of Dublin Gulch, past the company's downtown offices and onto the worn tile floor of the M & M Cigar Store-cafe-bar, where a brigade of merry drunks singing the "Patriot Game," at full bore, is lining up for a St. Patrick's Day breakfast.
Twenty-five-cent beers follow half-dollar shots and nostalgic stories of bygone fights warm the air, fending off the chill realities slowly unfolding beyond the saloon's swinging doors.
Grim traces of change abound. The old city hall with its basement jail lies empty and littered alongside one of Butte's many barren downtown lots, the legacy of a prolonged wave of mysterious arson that gutted the turn-of-the-century buildings almost nightly. Insurance became too expensive to get, more structures burned and all but the hardiest merchants left.
A resident remembers returning home one night and gazing down on three major blazes flaring below. "It looked," he recalls, "like a town under seige."
As in all campaigns, there are refugees. Butte has slipped in 50 years from a bustling city of over 60,000 to a town of barely 43,000. Two thousand jobs evaporated in the last six years and an entire generation has moved away.
They left behind the country of big sky, big forearms and big hearts.
Ancient glaciers carved the broad valley on whose north end Butte rests, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and forests stretching to infinity. Midway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and 10 miles west of the Great Divide, the city sits atop a subterranean bulge of copper rich magma thrust upward during the formation of the continent.
Sheer muscle extracted the ore from the billion-dollar deposit. Money lust and back-wrenching labor, as often in teandem as in conflict, created a boggling honeycomb of individually operated deep minees, each claim following a copper vein until it either crossed paths with a competing claim or petered out. When the underground shootouts and the Byzantine legal battles ended, there was one company -- Anaconda -- and a town called Butte.
The society that developed here is as coarse, yet complicated, as the mines themselves. It's a straight town -- ask a question, get an answer -- but not a cold town. The boom and bust cycle of the copper economy, the special rigor of the work, a history of militant unionism and strong ethnic identification, all work to pull Butte people together.
Families are strong, and a crippling tragedy that strikes one home is tragedy to all; social lines are trampled in the rush to give aid. No one makes much of these acts, it's just what people do who must share to survive. Many commandments are joyously and regularly broken in Butte, but failing to love they neighbor is not on the list of approved transgressions.
This is the society Butte's young emigres left, and they cling together for strength and comfort in other mine towns and in cities like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, whose subways needed building.
Ironically, laying rail lines is part of what brought the Irish to Butte. They worked westward on the transcontinental lines. The Chinese worked eastward. By the 1870s, competing railroads raced feverishly to complete the overland northern route that had been the dream of explorers Lewis and Clark. o
Silver and other minerals were discovered about the same time, and Butte miners were called to finish off the lengthy mile-high tunnel that completed the railroad job. The last spike was driven in 1883, two years after the Butte Miners' Union was officially formed and had set its "Unyielding minimum" of $3.50 a day.
Butte prospered, with a Chinese population second only to San Francisco. Today, their entrepreneurial spirit is evidenced in but three noodle palaces.
The far heavier Irish influence remains. At least half of Butte is Irish, even when it's not St. Patrick's Day, and they dominate the town's Democratic politics and police force.
But no longer are there 1,500 Sullivan families and 1,300 Murphys.
Age, intermarriage, the slow death of deep mining and the falling of ethnic neighborhoods before Anaconda's bulldozers have weakened both ethnic identity and Butte itself. The recounting of vintage stories with the vigor of today's news entertains, yet disturbs. It seems a cultural assertion, the heeding of the poet Yeats. *t"Cast your mind on other days," he wrote, "that we in coming days may be/Still the indomitable Irishy."
Sure, now, and it's not the days when a socialist mayor and sheriff held sway in this violent town, fighting fist-swinging miners and company stooges. Gone are the once-potent Wobblies who spread from here to mobilize farm workers during the early 1900s and who saw International Workers of the World organizer Frank Little tied to a bumper, dragged through Butte's streets and strung up to die beneath the train trestle.
The era has passed when an Irish president would travel to New York, Chicago and Butte, as Eamonn de Valera did, to give thanks for support against Britain.
And there will never be another sheriff Jerry Murphy, who foreswore a gun and kept peace during the Depression by talking criminals into insensibility, a practice that proved fatal.
Butte was built in the late 1800s by ruthless Irishmen like Marcus Daley, who consolidated underground claims into the giant Anaconda copper mine, an ore body that produced immense wealth for a few, backbreaking labor for many, and has come to be a massive crater swallowing the homes in places like Dublin Gulch, the hillside haunt of the Irish that fell before Kelley's mine; Finn Town, the collection of Scandinavian rooming houses, bars, and saunas; and Meaderville, the Italian section once snuggled at the base of the eastern hills. The open pit mine ate those neighborhoods and now threatens to move a few blocks west and obliterate the downtown.
Today the pit is over 2 1/2 miles wide. Another half-mile gobble -- taking the last overgrown fields of Columbia Gardens, once Butte's showcase amusement park -- is underway. A force of 10,000 deep miners has shrunk to about 80 in the past 50 years, their handsome brick union hall crumbling into a shadow of itself. Earthmovers replace rock picks and now the Teamsters are the top labor gang in town.
The company is the same feudal lord as ever, but the Butte-born no longer run it. Butte once took cheerless pride in being the home of Anaconda's top brass, but that was lost when the company sold out to Arco petroleum.
Butte still takes pride, however, in being the home town of a miner named Mike Mansfield, who became a U.S. senator. Mansfield did all he could for his birthplace, finagling a tax break or a model cities grant here and there, but his two big gifts may alter Butte forever.
Mansfield swung a big deal giving Butte a "port" status despite its 1,000-mile distance from the nearest place where a freighter could dock.The "port" is a warehouse in the south of town where shipping containers are opened and the contents placed on trucks, creating a few more jobs for Teamsters. More importantly, the warehouse helps anchor an industrial complex containing Mansfield's most important pork-barrel handout: the Montana Energy and MHD Research and Development Institute (MERDI), a project of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
The Institute represents a $22-million construction contract and about 300 highly technical jobs. Its purpose is to test components for DOE energy systems. The MHD in the name stands for magnetohydrodynamics, a means of creating electricity by forcing a mixture of pulverized coal dust, hydrogen and oxygen through a chamber with super-heated air. This theoretical method ties in nicely with Montana's known coal reserves.
In an old hospital near MERDI is the National Center for Appropriate Technology, a MERDI spinoff that tests the efficiency of new energy technologies, particularly solar, and helps create energy-related pilot programs with community action agencies. It employs 100 workers.
Between the brawny miners and the brainy engineers exists a chasm. Butte is home to the miners, but it may be only a stopping place for upwardly mobile technocrats. Those newcomers who do intend to stay say they like Butte for what it is -- open, vital, neighborly -- but they don't like the equally open gambling, prostitution, brawling and general hell-raising that helped make it that way.
The struggle took shape when a MERDI official informed a booster group that in 10 years, Butte "will be transformed from a mining camp into a think tank."
Hard-core townsfolk demur, saying free-spirited Butte will never be taken by a colorless breed of technocrats buying $100,000 flatland homes and golfing at the country club (where daredevil hometown hero Robert (Evil) Knievel is currently behind on his dues).
But no one speaks here of unpleasantries like social changes, layoffs, and fears for the kids and the future. No one needs to, for they are part of the air.
Only strangers do not know them, and they think that the Victorian downtown is repugnant, that the frontier-style buildings on the hill are slums to be removed, that the frame homes are eyesores, that Butte is just a free-wheeling anachronism that progress surely will erase. They think that the wave of professional arson which has blighted square blocks of the downtown -- Butte's architectural soul of the city -- may not be a bad idea and they even write in a national magazine that Butte is the ugliest city in America.
The sting hurts. It shakes the deep pride of the citizens. Their hard-bitten resignation now resembles an unflattering fatalism. Beaten in labor strikes, their loved ones buried in cave-ins, they've struggled, but neglect, inflation and international business cycles -- all beyond their control -- are sapping the people's spirit.
Still, Butte endures, not a remote city so much as a landlocked island, a self-perpetuating myth encased in a continent.
Butte's Irish traditions also persist. Its geographic location, close to Canada and on major train and highway routes with three directions, is said to have made Butte the logical passing through point for weapons smuggled to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the early '70s.
Now, how much Irish aid was ballistics, and how much was blarney, may never be known. Suffice it to say that the Feds called grand juries in 1973 to investigate activities in New York, Texas and Butte.
Butte's jury assembled in San Francisco. Butte, it seems, had been bothered for some time prior by burglaries in which nothing was taken except weapons. Moreover, rumors had reached Washington that Butte's police had a conspicuously located rain barrel in the station where confiscated weapons were routinely tossed. When the barrel was full, the story went, the cops would heave it into the trunk of the paddy wagon and take a midnight ramble to Canada.
No one in local IRA circles would ever deny such a fine story, and it says a good deal about Butte that it was ever given enough credence to repeat. sFour of Butte's finist Irishy -- two cops, a sheriff and an insurance salesman -- were called as witnesses. The Butte 4 arrived in San Francisco as guests of the government and were received as heroes in the Irish community which plied them with liquid fortifications to steel their will before the jury.
Irish sources, perhaps reliable, claim the quartet brought matching green suits to wear during their inquistion, and showed up to testify in varying states of insobriety.
Not one question was asked about guns. The only man indicted, and he on a piddling charge, was a San Franciscan who, sympathetic friends say, wouldn't know a .45 muzzle from a shower nozzle.
As a country band sets up in a local bar, a prominent citizen and a supporter of the Irish Republican Army's Provisional wing tells his story. It is simple and encompassing.
A friend who met the Butte 4 on their return home recalls, approvingly, that they were a "terrible mess." One of them is now a candidate for sheriff, but a politico supportive of the incumbant (also Irish) says the grand jury matter will not surface in the campaign.
"Why should any politician bring up an issue," he asks, "that can only help his opponent?"
In the Acoma bar, a watering hole and dance spot just down the hill from Dublin Gulch, a supporter of the IRA's Provisional wing nurses a ginger ale. Finally assured that thei writer is not, in fact, a federal agent, he waves his hand slightly, a bottle of gin appears and he shakes his head sadly.
"As for the guns," he says, "there's nothing organized. But what people do on their own is their own business."
His recollections of change are personal but encompassing.
"The Italian section was little Las Vegas," he says. "After it was gone, there was no homemade grappa, no smoked sausage. They had the best lawns in the city. Hell, they brought in loam by the wagon loads.
The company either bought the houses and tore them down, or sold them back to people for $1 if they wanted to move them.
"But you can't get people to talk about the company to you. They can reach out and get you. Me, I was blackballed. Tried getting some other miners to walk out.
"I got a boy, but there's nothing here for him. He'll leave. I don't like it, but what are the kids gonna do? It's like it was in the old country -- we send our best away. But it's better for him than working in the mines. When I told my father I was going to work in the mines, he broke down and cried.
"There were days when I'd sit at the bottom during a break and hurt all over.Guys around me would be all broken up and coughing their guts out, and I'd say to mayself, 'My God, am I ever going to get out of here?'"
Outside the Acoma it is 18 degrees with a lightly falling snow. There used to be six cab companies in town. Now there's only one with six cabs, none of which has a fare meter. One of the two taxis on duty is driven by a lean young blond in his early 20s wearing Western boots, denim pants and jacket, and a beige cowboy hat. It's his first week on the job and he keeps handling the radio like a toy.
He feels lucky to have a job, any job. Like most Butte people, as yet unsullied by sensitivity training, he answers questions with a crushing directness and integrity.
"Yup. I'm a native. Born here. Raised here. Gone to school here. Probably die in this rathole. Not much work. No future, really, for young people. Most of my friends from high school, they've moved away, to Missoula, Billings, Helena.
"I never worked in the mines. My grandfather, he made me promise I wouldn't. He was a miner. He died of silicosis. You known, that's a lung disease they get that workin' in the mines from all the dust. Anyway, he called me in his room, where he was dyin' and he made me swear right there that I'd never go down in the mines. He meant it, too.
"Said if he ever heard I'd gone down in the mines, he'd kill me."
He gazed straight ahead as he talked, a sure sign that he hadn't mined. After years of working like moles, the only illumination a feeble beam from the center of their hardhats, miners develop an eerie habit of turning to face a speaker, no matter what he says, in an attempt to throw light on the subject. a
The young cabbie will not develop this quirk. Nor, like the very old men at the card tables, will he feel the constant need to have a handkerchief in his pocket, just in case he has to cough.
Bill Thompson, 39-year-old president of Anaconda, has sixth-floor offices in the Hennessey bulding, once Butte's leading department store. Hennessey's, originally the company store, and later an independent firm, had leased their brick and wrought-iron structure from Anaconda.
Now, Hennessey's has pulled out, leaving no major downtown department store and creating a big hole in the Montana Standard newspaper (itself once owned by Anaconda) where advertisements used to be. The entire building is being renovated for Anaconda.
Thompson swears Anaconda will not move its mining operations toward town for at least 20 years. "We've been mining here 100 years," he says, "and we still don't know the size of the ore body."
Thompson is not a Butte product, although the boyish-looking executive did go to nearby Montana Tech and worked on vacations as a contract miner, a job presently paying as high as $200 a day.
Thompson inherited a company so badly in debt that it had to sell itself. Anaconda had invested heavily in Chile, but lost it to nationalization. Arco bought Anaconda in 1975 with an eye, says Thompson, toward the role of copper in the transmission of electricity.
"Arco has been good for Butte," says Thompson. "It has brought a stability and brought us much needed capital."
He also claims that Arco has brought a more "open" business style. That would be an improvement. Thompson's predecessor once stalked closemouthed from a press conference, when a reporter, voicing widely held suspicions, asked, "Does Anaconda Copper have a staff arsonist?"
Town-company relationships are not good.
A few blocks from Thompson's suite is the Stockman Bar, owned and tended by a 79-year-old former madam known simply as Jean, a salty sort who runs a clean place with a first-class pool table and few customers. Jean's appealing a murder conviction, the second time she's faced that charge, and some business would help pay the lawyer's bills. But it's Saturday night and the place is, well, dead.
"Last year at this time," she says, "there were 300 more men in this town. I had people crowded right out the door."
Layoffs hit in January, when 300 miners got walking papers, increasing Butte's 8 percent unemployment rate. Under recently renegotiated "enhanced layoff benefits," workers get $42 a week for six months, then it goes to $75.
Contract negotiations start in May. Sixty years ago, Anaconda fought the Wobblies' "one-union" concept in favor of separate craft unions. Now, in what are called "jurisdictional disputes," Anaconda -- stressing productivity -- is taking on the crafts unions, trying to get one worker to do several different jobs. The unions will probably strike, but strikes hurt hard in a town where per capita income is $4,183.
A city report warns that "Butte cannot live in the glories of the past or despair of its losses of the last half-century. . ."
The report is little read. It is for planners. Miners rarely plan. They work in pitch-dark passages, play mind games, guess if it's day or night, wet or dry, in the world up top.
They live and work in the present, the end of the shaft in front of their faces. One more rock lies beyond. The sure path, the one behind, could collapse in a moment's crisis. Work hard, drink hard, hope that the ore holds out and the prices don't drop.
Late one evening, a small knot of miners straggles down the hill from the Kelley and drifts into the crowded Helsinki Bar, the lone remnant of Finn Town. Orange beer, to celebrate St. Urho -- the little known holy man who drove the grasshoppers from Finland -- flows freely. A trio of young and none-too-sober Irish Catholic priests is clustered at a safe distance tossing their blessings at participants in occasional fistfights, usually between fathers and sons. Most people dance.
Abruptly, one woman turns and confronts her dance partner, a stranger. What does he really think of the townspeople? He tells her. Her lips part slightly and hold in a thoughtful pause.
"You say you find them proud and defensive," she says. "I'll tell you why.
It's because they're poor. They've always been poor, but it was all right because they were all poor. I came back to Butte from California, where I could have made a lot of money as a mathematician, because this was a place where I could raise my son and be decently poor. I couldn't do that in California. There was too much emphasis on the material.
"People live here for today. Hell, they may not be alive tomorrow. Wives have never known if their husbands were coming home. All people could count on, all they still count on, is one another. They've heard promises and lies from the company for years, so they don't believe anything they hear. All they know is, they're alive and they'd better enjoy it."