Sunday, June 05, 2005

Butte—From Boom to Bust to Revival

It was the biggest city between Chicago and San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century, an urban island in an ocean of wilderness. Today it is down to 33,892, a fraction of its population from 1880 to 1920. Butte hill was the richest copper on the Earth. Entrepreneurs like William Clark, Marcus Daly and Augustus Heinze were “the Copper Kings” of the era. These copper barons dominated Montana’s economy and politics, controlling four of the five of the state’s major daily newspapers, railroads, banks, power companies, land and even portions of the state Legislature.

Butte was a mecca for newly arrived immigrants. The pay was very good and dependable. Miners work hard, but also play hard. The tradition for a new tavern was to flush the front door key down the toilet on opening day, because there was no reason to ever close the place down again as thousands of miners worked around the clock.

Butte’s low point came in 1982 when Atlantic Richfield Co., which bought the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. in 1977, closed the mine down from one day to the next. Businesses closed, people left town and the town dwindled.

Some of the town’s main attributes today are the buildings and infrastructure built during the boom times. The Uptown part of town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Jeff Francis, a Florida native, sold his antique and collectible show business there in 1999 and has been splitting his time between FL and MT ever since. He has spent $1.5 million on 12 historic commercial buildings that date from 1890 to 1920. He’s convinced that Butte is on the cusp of a new boom, not built upon copper but on “side-open spaces, peace and serenity, outdoor recreation, it’s all the vogue. Butte has it. Look at Park City, Aspen, and Telluride. They were all mining towns. Look at them now.”

Francis is pushing Butte into the festival business. He is bringing in 200 to 300 antique and collectible dealers for one of the first of many shows that he intends to develop. It should be an interesting change for a town that was only going down.

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