Butte, Montana – Historic Uptown District

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I have so many nice things to say about Butte, Montana, I hardly know where to begin.  This is exactly what you’d expect a Montana town to be–it has a western feel, a wild feel, and the relics of its history are everywhere.  It is certainly not polished and tourist-ey, while at the same time it’s still welcoming to visitors.  I only had a few hours to see it all, but afterwards I wished I had stayed for a couple of days.

You should begin your visit by driving through Butte’s historic Uptown District.

Butte, Montana is located along Interstates 90 and 15, about an hour’s drive south of the capitol, Helena.  Take the Montana Street exit (it’s well marked with “historical district” signs), then drive uphill.

Butte was, is, and (despite the decline of the industry) will always be a mining town.  Relics of the industry are everywhere.  We’ll explore the town’s mining history on the next couple of pages, but this small park is a great place to start.  Several pieces of old equipment are on display, along with some tourist information.  Park nearby and check it out, before walking around the rest of Uptown.

Block after block of old brick buildings make Butte’s Uptown District very appealing.  One street after another has old storefronts, complete with old neon signs hanging over the sidewalks.  In most cities around the country, buildings like this fell victim to progress, and were reduced to rubble to make room for “nicer” structures.  Thank goodness that hasn’t happened here.

Butte seems to be aware of the historic value of the stores and buildings that line its Uptown streets.  Now that the economy isn’t quite as bad as it was when the copper mines shut down, buildings that were frozen in time can begin to thaw.  The Tait Apartments (above) were being gutted and refurbished during my visit in 2006.

This is the view down W. Broadway St.  Broadway is home to several of the town’s old hotels.

The neon signs are cool, but what’s really amazing is the fact that the businesses they advertise are still open.  This sign is attached to the M&M Cafe, and although I didn’t eat there, I have read some glowing reviews of their food.

The Hotel Finlen stands out, even from a distance.  Even though it was built in 1924, it remains Butte’s tallest building, at 9 stories.  Its design was meant to resemble the historic Astor Hotel in New York City.  Originally, it had 300 rooms, and was widely considered to be the finest hotel in Montana.  Recently, the lobby has been restored, and some of the rooms are still available on a nightly basis (others have been converted into apartments or business space).

Although I didn’t stay there, The Finlen does appear to be a funky and fun alternative to cookie-cutter motels.  And, it has reasonable rates (around $50-60).  Check out their website for more information.

For the better part of the 20th century, Butte had a thriving red light district.  In fact, the longest-operating brothel in the U.S., the Dumas Brothel, was located in Butte, and closed its doors in 1982.  From the mid-80’s to the early 2000’s its doors opened again, as a museum, but financial problems and legal squabbles forced it to close.  You can check for the latest updates on its website.  Or, just walk by and check out the old building at 45 E. Mercury Street.

I like any town that hasn’t painted over old signs like these (or torn down the old buildings they were painted on).  I imagine if I had walked around for a few days, I would have found a hundred scenes similar to this one.

Notice the slope of the street — no matter where you go, you’ll either be climbing or descending a hill.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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