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  • My father was born in Butte, and that always seemed a bit strange to me. He was a product of four generations of a Mormon family that helped settle southern Utah. How did a rough mining town in Montana with hundreds of saloons and a famous red light district figure into the picture?

    Called “The Richest Hill on Earth,” Butte sits in a bowl on the Continental Divide. (Four of the five highways exiting the town must cross the Divide.) It began with gold and silver mining camps in the early 1870’s, but when copper became king it turned into a real boom town. It attracted miners from dozens of ethnic backgrounds as well as from all over the country, and about the time Dad was born in 1917 the population of the area was around 100,000.

    Copper production reached a peak in 1917, but tough times lay ahead for both the city and the family. Butte mining was done underground, and five months before Dad was born, a terrible fire 2500 feet in the earth killed 168 miners at the Speculation Mine. Labor tensions increased and about 8 weeks after the fire, a IWW executive board member was lynched. In January, the 1918 Flu Pandemic began, and in December it took the lives of Dad’s 7-year-old sister and his uncle. The 1920 census shows the family back in Utah, so I assume after they brought these two family members home for burial they did not return to Montana.

    Dad’s people were not miners, so what led them to Butte for those 5-6 years? Grandpa had something to do with the leadership of the Sheep Shearers Association. I don’t know if he ran sheep himself, as many families in Southern Utah did, or if he just worked for the association. A little digging on the Internet told me that the demand for mutton and beef by the influx of miners in Montana had created a huge market for ranchers, and in 1903 the Sheep Shearers Union #1 of North America had been organized in Butte. (Then 1 of only 4 unions in the world.) Those pieces of information somehow link together to put my family in Butte long enough for the birth of 2 children and the death of another.
  • It also led to a couple of visits to Butte on my part - just out of curiosity. My husband and I skipped the newer part of town with the requisite national chains and poked around the original part of downtown. Much of it was boarded up or looking very shabby, but there was also new construction interspersed with restoration of some of the historic buildings. We ate in the Metals Bank which still had marble counters and columns and huge windows with copper-plated casings. The massive vault door stood open, allowing diners to be seated inside. The mansion of The Copper King was a few streets away and had been restored. Nearby was the French-style chalet "the king's" son built for his wife.
  • It was impossible to escape the mining roots of the city. Twenty-three massive head frames, structures that lowered miners into the shafts and lifted ore and overburden out, still dotted the hills. And then there was the huge Berkley pit that was visible from most places in town. Open pit strip mining, cheaper than underground extraction, destroyed 2 towns and hundreds of homes between 1950-1980 as the mountain was torn down. The Pit is filling with water, toxic with heavy metals and arsenic and is the largest superfund cleanup site in the country.
  • That’s a lot of rambling, but that is the fun of poking at your roots. The stories of places are important, as are the stories of the people. Otherwise those names and dates on our family trees would be rather boring. It is always good to add a little color.
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