And today, we saw some major wounds of the geological sort.
We left Helena and headed for Butte, a very interesting town. Remember Marcus Daly, whose mansion we toured Sunday in Hamilton? Today we saw what brought him all that moolah – the Anaconda Mine in modern-day Butte, and the smelter in the town of Anaconda.
We drove into Butte on a glorious day, stopping to read the historic markers, and to look at the town, which has a rather large hole at one end, now known as the Berkeley Pit. It’s worth reading what they say about themselves, about Meaderville, the Italian community that disappeared into the pit, and about Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, towering over the town, on a precipice marking the Continental Divide.
We started at the World Museum of Mining, a rather grand title for a very sweet collection of various local buildings moved here to approximate the original early mining days of Butte. It was charming – especially in the light of a sunny day – but hanging over all the bye-gone sweetness was the head-frame of the mine and its vintage cages that took the men down below.
The museum seems to partly be on the campus of Montana Tech, which – as you might imagine – does offer a degree in Mining. At the top the very long hill as you approach the campus is a statue of that noble patriarch of Butte, our friend Marcus Daly. He was rather appropriately lit in dark and light, as befits this Copper King, I think. His vantage point overlooks this town he created, and which enriched him greatly. And if you look all the way down Park Street, you can see the cherry on the cake, the remainder and reminder of all those good old days – the Berkeley Pit.
Now Marcus is not responsible for the Berkeley Pit – exactly. The owner of the mine in the mid-50’s decided that strip mining was the way to go and this sin is on their head. Evidently people would be told that the next day their houses would be consumed by the pit as it moved rapaciously though the town.
But it became clear that our horror at the Pit was not something to share with many of the natives. When the mine shut down in 1982, the locals didn’t say, “Oh, now we can breathe the air again and see the sky! Now our men will stop dying in mine accidents! Now we won’t hear the incessant pounding of the machinery and hear the whistles of the shift changes and the blasting of the dynamite!” No, they did what people in every dying mining town did – they and 5000 of their neighbors became unemployed and unemployable, and they mourned the loss of the mine.
When the pumps stopped working, this huge pit filled with water, and all the effluents of years of mining. What you see at the top of this post is not a lovely Montana lake, but rather the largest toxic waste dump in America, with billions in superfund dollars needed to clean it up. Love Canal pales in comparison – and they didn’t let people live there.
You can go down to the end of Park Street and view the Pit. Oh joy! And of course we did. First, a word about Park Street. At one time, there was an actual park with amusement rides and lots of things to entertain the children where the Pit is now. They remember it fondly, because it was the only place in Butte where anything could grow because of all the pollution, as the park land was upwind of the mine. We saw a video with a Butte elder fondly remember the thrill of going to the park and rolling in real grass. You see – bread and circuses work every time. No one screamed about the reason nothing could grow in Butte – as long as they had their one park.
Next, a word about the weather. The day had been glorious – till we got to the Pit. Suddenly it got dark and started to rain. We walked down the long tunnel to the viewing area, and gazed in horror at this toxic lake – and it started to hail. And then the hail got to be furious and we had to retreat to the tunnel. Now, are you going to tell me that Nature wasn’t editorializing about the Berkeley Pit? Don’t even try to convince me otherwise.
Next, for fun, we went to Anaconda, about 25 miles away. There Marcus Daly built the smelter that processed all that copper. It is a grand edifice, taller than the Washington Monument, and cleverly built to shoot all those toxins out of the town and over the nearby ranch land and its cattle. Bit of a problem, but the Anaconda Mine triumphed in the US Supreme Court. Those were the days. All the new uses for electricity created an incredible demand for copper so the people must be served. Now, there is evidently a world-class golf course in that pit, and the town goes on. And of course that lovely Mrs. George Hearst (wife of Marcus Daly’s partner George, and mother of William Randolph Hearst) built them a nice library. You can’t actually see the big slag heaps from there, so that’s a real plus.
You see, that’s the amazing thing. Modern America has covered these two towns with the kudzu of fast-food joints and box stores and everything is ok, right? They are small towns just like any small towns, filled with people going about their lives, only with just a little more history and one or two major eyesores. I guess all is forgiven.
Care for a glass of Butte tap water, anyone?