Folks in Montana have a special affection for the city of Butte. It’s the only city in Montana that has a truly ethnic feel: if your family is Irish, Serbian, Croatian, Finnish, Italian, Cornish, or Welsh, and was in Montana 100 years ago, you can be pretty sure that the copper mines of Butte touched their lives. The story is that immigrants landing in New York and hoping to work in the mines often knew just two English words: “Butte” and “America” and that was enough to get them across the country. The city still calls itself Butte, America, and there’s no shortage of pride in that label. Even so, much of uptown Butte is gritty and dilapidated, reminiscent of an east coast city fifty years ago. Whenever a Butte waitress asks “what do youse guys want?” I’m transported to the South Boston or Brooklyn of my youth.
The mines and the unions made Butte, and you can still see that legacy throughout the city. The old gallows headframes are scattered everywhere, but the reminder of the mines is just as strong in the old bars, groceries, boarding houses, and union halls that are still standing. It’s a great city.