The Richest Hill on Earth – Butte, MT

Butte, MT

We left Helena and headed south on I-15 for a short drive of about 70 miles to the city of Butte.  There was nothing in particular that we wanted to see there, but since it was on our route, we thought it might merit a visit.  So we made a three night reservation at the Butte KOA and, once set up there, headed over to the visitor center next to the park to see what we might want to visit in the area.  It turns out Butte is a pretty interesting town, with plenty of history.

Downtown Butte, MT

Established in 1864 as a mining camp , Butte experienced rapid development in the late 1900’s, and was Montana’s first major industrial city.  In its heyday it was one of the largest copper boomtowns in the west.

Butte’s slogan is the “richest hill on earth.”  Over the course of its history, Butte’s mining operations generated an excess of $48 billion worth of gold, silver, and copper.  But the mining has also resulted in numerous environmental implications for the city and it is the site of the largest superfund effort in the U.S which include removing and cleaning the soil, as well as, adding many walking/biking trails throughout the town and hillsides.  Today the hill overlooking the city contains the remains (huge headframes or main above-ground structures) of numerous shafts mines with a three mile walking/biking loop that highlights each mine.

The Con – Mountain Con Mine

Butte’s elevation is over a mile high, the Con is a mile deep

As we drove around the mining hillside on the north side of the city we came upon a memorial to the 1917 Speculator Mine Disaster, the most deadly event in underground hard rock mining in U.S. history.  As part of a fire safety system, the mining company was installing an electric cable down into the Granite Mountain mine.  During installation the cable fell into an area approximately 2,500 feet below the surface and was damaged. When a foreman with a carbide lamp tried to inspect the damage, he accidentally ignited the oil-soaked cloth insulation on the cable. The fire quickly climbed the cable, and turned the shaft into a chimney, igniting the timbers in the shaft and consuming oxygen in the mines.

A total of 168 miners died in the ensuing blaze, most from asphyxia. Some of the miners did not die immediately, they survived for a day or two in the tunnels underground.  Some left notes written while they waited in hopes of rescue.  A few managed to barricade themselves behind bulkheads in the mine and were rescued after as long as 55 hours.

The Butte Chamber of Commerce offers a trolley car tour of the city leaving periodically each day from the visitor center next door to the RV park.  We purchased tickets in the morning and boarded the trolley for the noon tour.

The tour meandered through the city while the driver, a life long resident of Butte, gave an interesting running narration of the sights.  The trolley only makes one stop, a visit to the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine opened in 1955 and closed in 1982.

A young, energetic couple block the mine entrance

A tunnel leads through the surrounding wall of the pit to an observation deck.

Once everyone on the tour was on the observation deck our guide, Mark, gave a short talk explaining some interesting information about the mine and efforts to clean contaminated water seeping into it.

Our tour guide, Mark

When the pit was closed, the water pumps in an old nearby shaft mine, 3,800 feet below the surface, were turned off and groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month.  Since its closure in 1982 the water level in the pit has risen to within 150 feet of the natural water table.

To prevent the mine water from entering the water table a new filter system pumps water out of the pit, removes impurities, and sends the water into a nearby creek.  The amount pumped out each day equals the amount seeping into the pit.  Since there is no way to prevent the water from entering the pit, this process will proceed far into the future.

After viewing the Berkeley Pit the group re-boarded the trolley and we headed into the city.  As with most mining towns, Butte had a very diverse population, and an equal number of vices.

Mai Wah Museum highlights Asian culture in Butte

The Dumas Brothel – in operation until 1982

As the trolley made its way through town our guide, Mark, pointed out an auto repair shop that he said at one time was owned by the father of a high school classmate of his named Bobby Knievel.  While Mark called him Bobby, the world knew him as Evel Knievel, the famous motorcycle daredevil.  We wrote of Evel Knievel in a 2017 post about a visit to Twin Falls, ID where he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket propelled vehicle.  We didn’t realize that Knievel was born, raised, and is buried in Butte.

Mark said he didn’t hang around with Knievel in high school as he was just too wild.  As an example, he said Knievel tried to ride a motorcycle up the stairs inside the county courthouse.  Later he worked for one of the mines where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte’s main power line, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.

About nine miles south of Butte is Thompson Park, a municipal recreation area with 25 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking.  A rail trail on the old path of the historic Milwaukee Railroad (Milwaukee Road) provides a gently sloped (trains don’t like steep grades and neither do we) path that goes through two tunnels and over a 600 foot trestle.  After a couple of days exploring Butte we needed to stretch our legs, so we drove down to hike that trail.

Sagebrush Flats – our access to the rail trail

The Milwaukee Road began operations in Montana by running the steam engines common at the time.  However, they soon began to believe that electric powered trains would be a better option.  With the low cost electricity from the Columbia River hydro power plants, company owners believed that electricity would be much cheaper than steam.   In 1915 the first section of the line switched to electricity and soon the entire line was electrified. The electric trains proved to be efficient and effective. They were dependable and operated well in the cold harsh conditions.

Reading the display panel in the photo above, John became more interested when he noticed the banner on the engine pictured in the insert.  It clearly noted that the electric engine had been constructed in his home town of Erie, PA, where they are still producing electrical railroad engines today.

As advertised, the trail is a well-maintained, level track through a pine forest with occasional views of the surrounding hills and mountains.

The trail goes through two tunnels.  The first is 550 feet long, an easy one to go through without a flashlight.

The other one, at 1,110 feet, is a bit more of a challenge, especially with the obstacle we encountered at its entrance.  As we approached the tunnel it appeared to have a layer of concrete at the entrance, standing about a foot above the trail surface.

As we approached the tunnel we discovered it was a thick layer of ice!

Unsure of how far into the tunnel the ice extended we took headlamps out of our pack and got out a set of hiking poles before heading in.  The ice was very smooth and firm but wet so we proceeded very slowly.

As we carefully proceeded into the dark tunnel we found the ice flow ended about a quarter of the way through and the surface turned to dry, firm dirt.

About a half mile from the second tunnel we approached a curve in the tracks.  In the distance we could see the long trestle, our turn around point.

The trestle is impressive at 600 feet in length, rising 130 feet above the valley floor. The trail ends just 100 yards from the 2,300 foot long Pipestone Pass tunnel, which is closed to the public.

Historic photo of construction of the bridge

Looking down at the road below the trestle

Can you spot Pam at the other end of the trestle?

After returning to the Jeep we drove the road that goes under the trestle to get a view of it from below.

Butte is home to Montana Tech, a small college formally known as the Montana School of Mines that is now part of the University of Montana system.  Years ago students at the school constructed a large “M” on the small butte above the campus.

A dirt road leads up to a spot just below the “M” where there is a great view of the city below.

View of the city from just below the “M”

Many towns and cities in the west (including our adopted home town of Boulder City) have a similar letter (or letters) above town.  But one of the things that make the “M” above Butte unique is that it is lit up a night.  Even more unique is that they can light up just the center portion of the “M” when the college has a significant athletic win, creating a “V” for victory.

We arrived in Butte with no expectation as to what we would find, but were pleasantly surprised at the interesting things we found.  The town has an unique story to tell, making a stop here worth the time.

We’ll now continue south for a three day visit to Idaho Falls, ID.  Again, we have no expectations for our visit, but it is a city of significant size and is on our route, so we’re curious as to what’s there.  We’ll let you know what we find . . .

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13 Responses to The Richest Hill on Earth – Butte, MT

  1. exploRVistas says:

    I remembered from a movie about Evel Knievel (starring George Hamilton maybe?) that he came from Butte. The joke was that the old mines that were close to the surface would collapse, swallowing up cars on the city streets. You two found a boatload of interesting stuff there. What a fun visit!

  2. Jerry and Carlene Francis says:

    Watched Evel jump some buses long ago on TV (can’t remember where or when). He made the jump, but lost control of his bike on the landing, and slid quite a ways into a barricade. Believe he broke something, not sure what. Frank Gifford was the TV commentator (Frank and Evel were friends), and while helping Evel walk after the crash, he asked Evel why he didn’t quit before he killed himself. Evel said, “Frank, I made two million dollars last year…..but I spent four million”!!

    Glad your blog is back up and running, have missed your posts.

  3. So glad we encouraged you to stop in Butte–it is an interesting town!

  4. Jodee Gravel says:

    You did find some great things to see and do in Butte! I think it’s the only “B” city we’ve missed in Montana 🙂 Great story about Knievel’s wheelie told someone who knew him. That entrance to the pit looks very elaborate. I’m glad to see they put “appropriate” railings on the trestle! Lighting up the V is so clever.

  5. We did the same trolley tour, and yes Butte has a lot of great stories to tell. Steve bought a book about the Copper Kings and found the story as fascinating as the town they built. We saw the trestle from the trail we took on the other side. We were camped in Anaconda so we missed the letter M lit at night 🙂

  6. Wow, what an unexpectedly interesting town! Love the history of the place.

  7. I never knew anything about the history of Butte before reading this post. Thanks for informing us about another interesting town.

  8. Steve & Dianne Colibaba says:

    We’ve only made a pit stop there while in transit and had no idea how interesting Butte is. Thanks for the tour!

  9. Sue says:

    I love it when we arrive somewhere with no expectations and are able to put together a long blog post about it! Great perspective shots in the tunnels – through the wall of the pit and also the ice tunnel! I’m not sure about the young hiker’s fashion statement however……I think one must be taller to be able to pull of the “head lamp” look. Ah well. I won’t comment on the trestle….looks awful to me but I’m glad you were able to enjoy it.

  10. Laurel says:

    That trolley tour of Butte sounds like a great way to experience the town. I appreciate how you guys dig in to discover the history and interesting tidbits of every place you visit. Such a funny story about Evel Knievel doing wheelies with an earth mover! Looks like you had your own death-defying adventure hiking on that thick layer of ice in the tunnel, LOL!

  11. Somehow we’ve never made it to Butte, either. What an interesting place!

  12. Joe Taylor says:

    What a great find! Love it when new adventures are also wonderful surprises ! Interesting stories about Evel Knievel and to meet someone who actually knew him is a bonus. Trolly rides are so much fun. Love, love the tunnels and trestle!

  13. geogypsy2u says:

    I love the way you two find interesting things to see and do wherever you go. Great tour of Butte.

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