THE COPPER KINGS of Butte, Montana

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 1

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 1 covers Montana and Wyoming. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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Butte, Montana

The city of Butte has a rich history, which can be taken quite literally, given the presence of the Richest Hill on Earth. The city, like so many other mining towns, was established by the 1860's Gold Rush. But after 1870 the production of the gold mines declined sharply, and their awful practice of hydraulic digging left the landscape in an abysmal state, with gaping holes and mounds of slag!

Most miners moved to other places, but a few companies remained and tried to develop different ways to extract gold, silver, copper, manganese, zinc and lead from the quartz ore. For ten years only the production of silver kept the city alive. But in 1880, four major events coincided to profoundly change history.

Miners chanced upon the richest copper vein that was ever found.
New smelting techniques made the mining of copper and other metals profitable.
The railroads reached Butte.
The fulgurant development of electricity and telecommunications caused an instant need for millions of kilometers of copper wire.

Almost instantly Butte developed into a mini-New York, with theaters, luxury hotels, the best restaurants, horse racing, gambling, and a marvelous amusement park!

The three Copper Kings

Wealthy copper barons fought each other during the years for more power and still more wealth. They were called the three Copper Kings. William A. Clark was the first, the last and the richest of this infamous trio, Marcus Daly founded the Anaconda mine, and Fritz A. Heinze, a former surveyor for Daly, became king number three.

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Clark - Daly - Heinze

Although all three were multimillionaires they fought each other tooth and nail, and certainly didn't concern themselves with such small details as honesty and legality... Under the ground, and purely "by accident" a lot of digging happened to be done on a competitor's property. At that time the law actually allowed miners to follow a profitable ore vein, even if it continued under someone else's property!

Especially Heinze became very good at buying land next to Daly's, and then digging underground to reach the latter's veins. Even if he didn't have the gift of discovering good prospects, he compensated this lack by having all of the local judges and lawyers in his wallet. Lawsuits against him tended to drag on for decades, and by then the vein was completely milked... When in 1905 this absurd law was changed, he simply sold everything and moved to New York.

Butte's later history

World War I "helped" a lot because the weapon industry needed copper. By 1920 the region had more than 200 mines, and the population had risen to 100,000 inhabitants. Prosperity continued up to the 1950's, when the declining quality of the ore and competition from other mines led to the switch of underground mining to open pit mining. This marked the end of Butte's boom.

After that the city fell in complete disrepair, and today postcards and magazine pictures look far better than the actual city. Nevertheless the local Tourism Office does its very best to promote every point of interest.

Just an example. In 1917 a fire broke out in a mine and 168 miners died in miserable circumstances. The local documentation informed us that in 1996 a memorial was built to honor and commemorate these unfortunate miners. While certainly a most noble initiative, sceptics could wonder why it took eighty years to do so...

** Read more about our visit to Butte **