Mile 594, Blacktail Creek, Butte, Montana.
Driver: Mom & Dad. Returning home from Uncle Stevie’s 50th Birthday. Spring 2011.
Here is part of an essay I wrote for a grant proposal to do some long term art work in Butte, I didn’t it get it but I was very close so was encouraged to tighten it up and try again this year:
Butte, Montana, USA is a place that exists outside of conventional space and time. A century ago it was one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi River. Called “The Richest Hill on Earth”, Butte built it’s fortune on copper mining at the advent of the electrical age. The work force required to work the mines were mainly immigrants from all over- Serbia, China, Wales, Croatia, Mexico, Lebanon, etc…, but mainly from Ireland. Butte is unique among western cities. It was not an agricultural hub or a shipping port, it looks like an East Coast industrial town plunked down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. The cultural hallmarks of Butte’s immigrant peoples are plain to see.
Butte’s built environment grew rapidly during it’s rise to prosperity. It was populated with tiny miner’s homes, beautiful churches, ornate mansions for the Copper Kings (the mine owners), and a thriving Uptown business district. The immigrant population included artisans who brought their cultural traditions with them and applied them to their new homes: stone walls, wrought iron fences, wooden grillwork. One of my Great-great-grandfathers was an itinerate Cathedral ceiling painter from Germany who settled in Butte to work in the churches and homes of the rich.
In the 1950’s the mining companies started switching over from the deeply dug gallows (gallas) frame mines to open pit mining. Pit mines ate up a huge portion of the city and by the 1970’s Butte was physically dominated by the Berkeley Pit. Then the bottom fell out of the copper market and Butte’s population dropped. While much of the older generations remained, younger people were forced to leave to find work or never returned after finishing college. In the early 1980’s the owner of the Berkeley Pit, ARCO, suspended all mining and turned off the pumps in nearby mines that kept them from filling with water. This resulted in toxic water filling the Pit, which is now the largest Superfund site in the United States.
Because the prosperity and population of Butte dropped off as rapidly as it grew, much of it’s built environment was either abandoned or insufficiently up kept. The beauty remains, but it is faded and tattered. As a person and as an artist I am very attracted to Butte as it is now. I know I romanticize Butte. I love the worn and damaged beauty. The slowness or otherness allows me to absorb the feeling of a place, not just the visual impressions. Because Butte has more place than people there is a visceral sense of the past. There is an emptiness left for your imagination to inhabit.