Butte, Montana, the Richest Hill on Earth
Located between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, Butte is a hub of history and culture in the heart of the Northern Rockies.
Head to Butte to explore the historic streets of a town once known as “the richest hill on Earth.” In fact, in 1896, this tiny town nestled into the folds of Montana’s gentle hillsides produced 26 percent of the world’s supply of copper and 51 percent of the United States’ supply, according to the Mining History Association.
Take a Butte Trolley Tour to learn about Butte’s colorful history and to see the largest National Historic Landmark District in the West. Butte’s buildings are stunning with their architectural details that masons at the turn-of-the-century took time to painstakingly create.
The tour also brings you by the Copper King Mansion where you can actually spend the night on an African mahogany sleigh bed. The 34-room abode was once home to W.A. Clark, a Butte mining giant who was one of the world’s richest men in 1900. The house cost an estimated half million dollars to build, which represented a half-day’s income for him.
Berkeley Pit Open-Pit Copper Mine
You’ll stop at the Berkeley Pit, a one-mile-long and half-mile wide former open pit copper mine where 320 million tons of ore was mined from 1955 to 1982. Today, ground water is filling the 1,780-foot deep pit since the water pumps were turned off when the mine closed. The pit is filled with toxic water that began filling the pit after the pumps used during years of underground mining were turned off in 1982. By 2012, the water in the pit had risen to 41.2 billion gallons of water.
Because the pit is laced with toxic heavy metals, the site is an EPA Super Fund site. It’s a marvel in the human ability to extract from the Earth and a dramatic visual lesson on how negatively we can impact the environment.
The Berkeley Pit open-pit copper mine welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every year. The Anaconda Co. began building the mine in 1955. Miners had to remove an estimated 4.4 million tons of water rock to reach the copper veins.
Today, it costs $1 for entrance to see the pit and after walking through a short tunnel, you’ll find yourself at an overlook at the edge of the Berkeley Pit.
Butte is also known as a festival town because it loves a good party! Make plans to be there for St. Patrick’s Day; the Freedom Festival on July 3 and 4; Evel Knievel Days in late July; or An Ri Ra, Montana’s Irish Cultural Heritage Festival, held in Butte every August.
Tour Butte’s Clark Chateau Museum, a 26-room historic mansion built in 1898. The museum, reminiscent of a French Chateau, houses a diverse collection of artwork, 18th and 19th century furniture, textiles, and collectibles. You’ll also want to take time to visit the new Arts Center, located at 124 S. Main St.
Don’t miss the tasting room for Headframe Spirits, which opened in 2012 and employs over 30 people. Headframe’s popular micro-distilled spirits include Neversweat Whiskey, High Ore Vodka, Anselmo Gin, Destroying Angel Whiskey and Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur. Its the only company in the world that produces continuous flow distillation equipment for the micro-distilling industry. Visit the distillery at 21 S. Montana St., Butte, MT 59701, (406) 299-2886, www.HeadframeSpirits.com
Our Lady of the Rockies
Experience breathtaking views of Butte from 8,500 ft. above sea level, at the site of Our Lady of the Rockies. Visitors will enjoy the inspiring story of how Our Lady was built and placed atop the Continental Divide. Bus tours run daily, June through September, weather permitting.
It’s hard to miss: 90 feet tall, white, and perched at 8,510 feet on the eastern ridge of Saddle Rock Peak overlooking Butte. Our Lady of the Rockies is the tallest statue of the Virgin Mary in North America and the fourth tallest in the world. Behind the Statue of Liberty (305 feet) and a statue of Pegasus killing a dragon (100 feet tall and in Hallandale, Florida), it’s the third tallest statue in the country.
Butte resident Bob O’Bill planned for a 5-foot statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1979 his wife Joyce was diagnosed with cancer and, in a prayer, Bob promised the Virgin Mary he’d build a statue honoring her in his backyard if Joyce recovered. Joyce did recover and Bob began to think a backyard statue wasn’t enough.
From the backyard project, the statue grew to 120 feet high, but, per Federal Aviation Administration rules, anything over 90 feet tall needs an approved, blinking light on top of it. Not wanting to defile the Virgin with such a thing, the statue was shortened to 90 feet. If you think her head and arms look big compared to the rest of her, you’re right. They were scaled for a 120-foot-tall statue and were not resized for the shorter version. Each hand is 8 feet long and weighs 300 pounds. The statue is made of steel and its separate pieces were welded together by Leroy Lee.
Bob, who died in summer 2016 at age 83, worked with friends and the Butte community to make the statue happen on a shoestring budget. Nearly everything was donated. Bake, pasty, and rummage sales helped fund what wasn’t donated. Bob’s friend Joe Roberts donated the land at the top of East Ridge. Four hundred tons of concrete were donated for the base. A Nevada Air National Guard team lifted and set the pieces of the statue into place with a CHAR Sikorsky Sky Crane—Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger approved the mission, which was named “You Betcha Butte Mission.”
Today a foundation maintains the statue and you can visit it during the summer and early fall. Buses leave from the Our Lady of the Rockies gift shop in the Butte Plaza Mall. 3100 Harrison Ave., (406) 782-1221, www.ourladyoftherockies.org
Butte’s Most Popular Museum
Discover Butte’s richness at the World Museum of Mining and Hell Roarin’ Gulch. Explore 12 acres of indoor and outdoor displays, built at the site of a 100-year-old silver and zinc mine. And don’t let the name fool you – this museum is also about the politics, pride and individuality that shaped the West.
Stop at Front Street Market in Butte
Before you leave town, don’t miss Front Street Market, an unbelievably authentic Italian market that would even wow a native New Yorker. It stocks gourmet cheeses, salamis, specialty items, sandwiches, salads and soups, plus more than 2,000 wines from all over the world.
For more information:
Butte Visitors Center
1000 George St., Butte, MT 59701
The text about our Lady of the Rockies is excerpted from On the Road Yellowstone by Dina Mishev. It was published as partnership between National Park Trips Media and Lyons Press.