Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Richest Hill on Earth

I had to be in Butte at 8am today.  When I woke up, it was -33*.  Going out to start the car at 7 in the morning, in the dark, in that kind of cold, is pretty unpleasant.   When the A&P lab--which has to be kept at a relatively low temperature since there are constantly cadavers and preserved animals in use--feels like a sauna when you walk in, you know the world has gone a little too cold.  Campus sits on top of a hill overlooking town, so when I walked out of my lab after the most welcome sun had finally come up, I saw Butte in all her glory (no sarcasm, I promise).

When I was growing up (and long before me) Butte was often the butt (pun intended, always) of jokes.  For decades (the better part of a century), in a state that was quite rural, very agricultural and rather politically conservative, Butte was an industrial powerhouse (can I use that word? I think I can--in 1920, the population of Butte was nearly 100,000), a mining town, and solidly blue: still a union town 100 years later, they elected some of the first openly socialist politicians in America.  Its houses seem to practically sit on top of each other.  It feels like a city in a way other Montana towns never quite have. It had a rough reputation, the way that boom towns often did.  The mines started with silver, but with the harnessing and development of electricity and electric lighting in particular, it rode high on copper at the turn of the century, and powered America through the first World War.  The mines in Butte and the smelter in Anaconda provided good-paying jobs to working-class men, though there were constant battles with "the Company", and several large strikes over the years. 

By the 1950s, companies had started open-strip mining, and by the early 80s, active mining all but ceased, and the Anaconda smelter went with it.  Like a typical boomtown, it went from boom to bust relatively quickly, and has still never really recovered from the loss of the mining industry.  Now there are only about 35,000 people in Butte, and the median family income is only about $22,000/year.  After a devastating fire in the 1880s, the city council passed a resolution requiring that all the downtown buildings be built from brick or stone, leading to some incredible buildings, most of which now sit in some degree of disrepair.

So, the whole time I was growing up, Butte's reputation was poor, ugly, unsophisticated and broken down.  The first time I saw it as anything else was thanks to my father.  My dad built an amazing educational program from the ground up, and administered it in many school districts around the state.  Every summer, he put on an institute for the teachers participating in the project, in a different Montana city each year.  Since the entire basis of the Heritage Project was community-centered education, in addition to planning for the next year, the teachers would spend time learning about the unique history of that city and the surrounding area.  The year he held the institute in Butte, I wasn't all that excited about going (I usually got to go to the conferences as a babysitter for my oldest sister, whose first child was very young at the time).  But one day, we did one of the historical walking tours and it happened that one of the teachers from Libby, Bob Malivak, grew up in Butte.  Going on the tour with him was a revelation, as he gave names and memories and lives to these run-down places.  In his stories, Butte came alive for me for the first time--and he was old enough that he knew the old Butte, before the slide into economic hardship and physical disrepair.  He knew a lot of the old family names, he could talk about the old miners who took pride in powering America--in lighting up her cities and helping her win wars (its estimated that from the late 1890s through WWI, Butte supplied fully a third of America's copper).  He made me see with affection and delight what previously had only been seen through the eyes of an unimpressed pre-teen Millennial.  It was not only the first time I could see the beauty in those glorious old buildings, the power in the industry that built the town, it was the first time I really had any inkling of how purposeful and powerful the Montana Heritage Project was.  I finally started to get what my dad was doing, and why.

One thing in particular that Bob said stuck with me: "The sun shines 364 days a year in Butte".  A few of the teachers laughed, since Butte is as famous for its harsh climate as anything else.  "It may be 20 below," he added, "but the sun will be shining.  And if the sun's shining, you can be happy. That's Butte."  I thought about that as I walked out into the -30* sunshine this morning.  Butte has long been known as "The Richest Hill on Earth".  I always assumed that was because of the tremendous amount or ore pried from under her hills.  I recently learned that the phrase was coined by a reporter who had come to cover the Speculator Mine fire.  In 1917, a mishap (that, quite ironically, occurred while trying to install parts of a fire safety system) caused a fire in the mine, which quickly spread throughout several tunnels and ended up claiming the lives 168 miners--still the deadliest accident in US hard-rock mining history.  As this reporter gathered stories, watched the efforts of rescue workers and other miners as they tried to rescue their coworkers, and saw the support that was poured out whole-heartedly for the families who lost husbands and fathers and breadwinners, it was the richness of human spirit he saw that prompted him to use the phrase.  He was impressed by the generosity and dedication the community gave each other.

I've been impressed many times since we moved here with the generosity of people in both Butte and Anaconda.  They are communities that have seen big highs and lows in terms of physical wealth, but there is still very much a sense of community.  There's a lot of frustration, stagnation, even anger at the loss of prosperity--where there doesn't seem to be much to take its place--and there is a sense of fatigue about the place.  As a city, Butte has sort of the feel of a middle-aged man who looks older than his years because he lived a bit too hard.  But when the sun shines on his face, you can see the beauty that's there.  You can see the worth underneath the rough exterior, you can coax a genuine smile.  Maybe its all that sunshine that's helped Butte keep its head just above water.  When its dark, that -30 is bitterly cold.  But when the sun's shining, even that terrible cold loses a bit of its bite.  Maybe its because when its dark, we naturally tend to look down, seeing only more darkness, and the hard, frozen ground;  but when the sun shines and there are bright, blue skies, we remember to look up.

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