In which I discover that Butte is not just a place to get lunch and gasoline on the way to Yellowstone.
Day two started damply, to say the least. I suspect it snowed a bit overnight, but by the time I woke up it had changed over to a drizzle just a few degrees above freezing. I packed up quickly and left out before my only neighbors in the campground woke up because I wanted to get the heat running in the car. I have a sleeping bag that has kept me warm in the snow before, but it doesn’t do much good after I get up.
Speaking of the neighbors, they were a retired couple from Florida who were spending the summer as campground hosts. The concept of a campground host is something I don’t remember from camping as a child, but it has become very popular over the last ten-fifteen years, and I think it’s a good thing, especially when I’m in an otherwise empty campground on my own.
The male half of the host couple and I had a very nice conversation the evening before, and the upshot was that he was the first person to whom I gave a Repeating History bookmark on this trip.
So. On the road again. My goal that morning was Butte, Montana. “The richest hill on earth.” (local slogan) “The noisiest place we ever camped.” (my mother) And what I’ve always thought as a rather ugly stop on the Interstate just west of Homestake Pass (aka the Continental Divide). Convenient, but ugly.
I don’t know how the World Mining Museum arrived on my radar, but it did, and so a week or so before I left my route changed from a straight shot to Helena to a slight detour to Butte. The World Mining Museum is on the campus of Montana Tech, which must be a very odd place to go to school. You see, Butte, Montana, appears to have been stalled in time, to back around the turn of the last century. The museum itself was fascinating, in a small-town let’s-collect-everything-we-can sort of way. There was an entire village of buildings full of antiques. Another village of vintage dollhouses. A room full of minerals (including a blacklighted section for those that glow in the dark). And a room telling the story of the richest hill on earth and one of the largest manmade holes in the ground on the planet, the Berkeley Pit, from which millions of dollars of copper were extracted up until the 1980s.
But it wasn’t just the museum that was arrested in time. The entire downtown (Butte has a nationally-registered historic district second in size only to New Orleans’), perched on the mountainside, looks like you’d expect ladies in long skirts and men in tailcoats to stroll by. The copper kings’ mansions (one of which I toured) have turrets and stained glass and gilded wallpaper and hand-carved staircases.
Absolutely none of which you can see from the freeway, from which vantage Butte simply looks like a dirty, gray huddle of buildings on the mountainside.
Then there is the Berkeley Pit. They quit mining from it in 1982. The last time I spent any time in Butte was in the late 1960s, when it was being mined 24/7 (hence my mother’s comment about the noise). It is now over half full with water so contaminated that the whole town is a SuperFund site. But it’s still pretty darned impressive to look at.
I spent most of the day in Butte, and found every minute of it fascinating. Yes, the town has problems the way Crocodile Dundee has a knife, but it’s still an amazing place. And not just a stop for gasoline and food.
Late that afternoon I turned north on I-15 towards Helena. Helena is the capital of Montana, and a very nice town I’d visited a couple of times before. Oddly enough, the farther north I drove (once I crossed the Continental Divide), the better the weather got. The cold drizzle in Butte changed over to sunshine. The views down the valley were beautiful. And it was a new road to me, at least for a few miles.
I had a date with a research library the next morning and the hope of handing out as many bookmarks as I could. After all, about a third of Repeating History is set in Helena. In 1877-8, granted…
Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures