Montana’s most representative city, Butte (pop. 32,110, elev. 5,755 feet) is also unique. Touted as “the richest hill on earth,” Butte was the nation’s largest single source of silver in the late 19th century and the largest source of copper until the 1930s.
This early and extreme wealth gave Butte a singular history and destiny. The town’s politicians utterly dominated Montana government for the first 50 years of statehood. It became the state’s first industrialized city, and it was also the largest until the 1960s.
Montanans from other parts of the state have always been deeply ambivalent about Butte; its political infighting, religious rivalries, hot temper, and its wealth and self-importance created a statewide atmosphere of distrust. However, many of the things that now seem typically Montanan—the can-do swagger, the spirited politics, the jocular and embracing sociality, its unspoken sense of neighborliness, even its food and drink (and the gusto and quantity in which they’re consumed)—reached a zenith in the early days of Butte.
The city’s greatest resource was always its people, the swirling mix of Irish, Poles, Italians, Slavs, Chinese, and others who forged the cosmopolitan collection of neighborhoods known as Butte.
Nowadays, Billings makes much of being Montana’s largest city and enjoys likening itself to a youthful Denver. Early in the 1900s, though, Butte had nearly as large a population tucked into a steep swale on Silverbow Creek; with its bluster and ethnic diversity, Butte was more like Chicago than any other city in the West.
Butte was a much larger, more vigorous city before the Berkeley Pit left a big hole in its center, but some of the charm and much of the history of the old city still remain: People still self-assuredly bustle, good food and drink are unquestionably an elemental part of daily life, and the old mansions and civic buildings that great wealth built still stand beside the ugly smokestacks, head frames, and piles of tailings.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition