by Caitlin Desilvey
I’m sitting in an apartment on the sixth floor of the Metals Bank building in Butte. Out the window to the east the city streets end abruptly at the rim of a mile-wide pit, a decommissioned open mine working that is gradually filling with acid mine drainage. The Beaux Arts highrise I’m staying in is a reclaimed ruin—largely vacant for thirty years, it was renovated into upscale condominiums a few years ago. In the 1880s Butte’s copper industry generated massive wealth from ‘The Richest Hill on Earth’; a century later, when operations ceased in the main Berkeley Pit, the town slipped into a decades-long interval of decline. Now, in 2011, the streets gleam with silver historic plaques, flower beds grace capped waste dumps, a system of paved paths (generously furnished with benches) weaves through the reclaimed landscape, and the headframes that once transported miners and materials in and out of the earth are lit each night with festive strings of red bulbs. When I lived in Missoula (the university town 120 miles west down the Clark Fork River Valley) in the 1990s I visited Butte often, snagged by its raw charm and its rough edges. Heritage-led reinvestment has filed off the edge in the old uptown core; the patchy hillside settlements of decrepit workers’ cottages, weedy lots, and fenced off mine shafts are changing too, though more slowly.
When I visited Butte in the past my gaze used to be drawn to the vacant spaces in the upper floors of its ornate downtown buildings. Many of the windows were boarded shut, and trapped pigeons fluttered against the dingy glass at others. Businesses struggled on in their streetfront premises under the stacked layers of dead space, the hollow husks of rooms built in more prosperous times. The emptiness of these interstitial ruins mirrored the abandonment of the mine workings below the surface of the city. Butte’s downtown district, erected with earnings from mining ventures, can be understood as an ‘inverted minescape’, which replicates the belowground timber frameworks in aboveground steel and glass. The seven-story building where I am staying was likely the tallest structure between Minneapolis and Spokane when it was constructed by copper king Augustus Heinze in 1906. Heinze hired architect Cass Gilbert (who would go on to design New York’s Woolworth Building) to draw up the plans, which included a copper-plated entry and a marble-lined lobby. Earnings from the copper mines built these structures; the collapse of the mining industry emptied them; and now the mines are filling these spaces again, transitively, in facilitating consumption of their rich history by people who can afford to buy $200,000 condominiums and caviar at the reopened Hennessy Market.
The revitalisation of Butte as a heritage destination is more or less legible. But this landscape also offers up encounters that are not so easily packaged and polished, moments of perplexity or density when your attention is drawn away from the obvious, or you feel an impulse to look away because you’re not sure what you’re seeing. A collection of mugs hangs on a chain-link fence surrounding a closed mineyard. A flat section of lightly wooded land between Butte’s two open pit mines doesn’t make sense, until you detect the traces of streets and sidewalks, a faded spatial imprint of the neighbourhood that was depopulated and cleared to make way for the pit. A building, recently painted and apparently sound, with all of its doors and windows sealed. In the regraded and revegetated hills above town, a vast picnic shelter, and a bike rack stilled sheathed in its plastic wrapping. And driving down Montana, before the interstate on-ramp and just past a casino, a strange black mass on your right: closer inspection reveals a canyon of formed slag, a creekside thick with wild mint.