As I mentioned on the previous page, Butte is a mining town. You just can’t forget it, because every time you turn around you see another relic of the industry–a scarred landscape, old equipment, and of course, the headframes that sprouted up decades ago on the hill above town.
To see some of the old mining areas up-close, find either Montana St. or Main St, and head uphill. If you’re looking for the Granite Mountain Memorial, you’ll probably spot a sign or two along the way. The memorial is on Badger Road (although I don’t remember seeing many street signs up there). This Google Map, zoomed in on the memorial site, may help. (By the way, some of the roads at the top of the hill are dirt, but they’re smooth, and easily passable in any car.)
As you head uphill, you’ll pass through the historic Uptown District, then past rows of semi-abandoned shacks and houses lining tiny streets. A little further, and you’ll soon be passing by many of those mining relics, which now appear to stand frozen in time.
Of course, all of these are off-limits, and behind fences. Even if they weren’t, they’d be too dangerous to approach.
Somewhere out there in the fog is the Berkeley Pit, Butte’s very own environmental disaster. We’ll explore it up close on the next page. From this vantage point, you can’t see the pit itself, but you can survey the barren, over-processed landscape.
You’ll also pass the ruins of some old, crumbling concrete buildings, that look more like something you’d find in Baghdad than Butte. (At least, we can only hope there’s pro-USA graffiti on the buildings in Baghdad!)
When you finally reach the memorial, you can take some time to reflect on the tremendous loss of life that occurred on June 8, 1917.
In the early 1900’s, Butte’s mines were buzzing with activity. World War I was demanding a massive amount of copper, and more than 14,000 miners were working in Butte’s mines to meet the demand. On the day of the fire, a crew had descended into the Granite Mountain mine to inspect an electrical cable that had fallen loose the previous day. As a man named Ernest Sullau inspected the cable, it came in contact with his carbide lamp. This set the cable’s cover on fire. The flames and smoke quickly spread through the Granite Mountain Mine’s passageways, as well as the connecting Speculator Mine. 168 men died. It took two weeks to recover all of their bodies.
The Granite Mountain Mine disaster was, and still is, the country’s worst hard-rock, metal mining disaster. The memorial was dedicated in 1996, in honor of those 168 men, and all the miners in the Butte area.
It’s too bad that this memorial is so off-the-beaten-path. I imagine most visitors to Butte don’t find it, or don’t even know where to look. However, spending a few minutes here–reading the plaques engraved with miners’ stories–helps put everything else you experience in Butte into perspective.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.