Take a walk through Uptown Butte on a blustery Saturday afternoon, and you might feel as if you’ve strolled into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
If it weren’t for the mountains, you might think you’re somewhere in Chicago or Kansas City. You’ll pass block after block of brick and stone buildings that appear to be deserted. Painted billboards, many of them recently restored, advertise bygone businesses such as “Liggett’s Fire-Proof Hotel.”
Look around, and more likely than not, there won’t be another person in sight.
To call Butte a ghost town would be an affront to the 34,000 or so people who live here. But considering that less than a century ago, Butte was a bustling, cosmopolitan city of more than 100,000 (at the time, about the same size as Spokane), the term feels oddly appropriate.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Butte was an important copper mining center and one of the major cities of the West. As copper production declined throughout the 20th century, so did Butte’s fortunes and, in turn, its population.
Everywhere you look, remnants of Butte’s glory days remain, preserved by an arid climate, spared from the wrecking ball by a troubled economy, and these days, protected by a recognition that all of this history is worth saving.
Butte has plenty of museums and other attractions, but to really experience the city, you need to wander around on your own. Take the time to just walk around and explore – nearly everywhere you go, you can commune with the ghosts of the past, with minimal distraction from the voices of the present.
At the same time, Butte offers the amenities needed for a comfortable visit, without being overwhelmed by tourist crowds and gift shops. Locals – at least the ones we encountered – welcome visitors and are often eager to tell you a little something about their town (with varying degrees of historical accuracy).
Mansion on the hill
Of all the historic sites in town, the one that provides perhaps the best metaphor for Butte’s appeal is the Copper King Mansion (219 W. Granite St.). Built in the 1880s by copper magnate William A. Clark, the 34-room Victorian mansion has since changed hands several times, serving as a convent, a school, a private home once again, and now a museum/bed and breakfast.
While current owners have made an effort to re-create the mansion’s Victorian décor, like the rest of the city, there are still plenty of signs of the multiple periods of the house’s occupancy.
In the dining room, you’ll see antique plates on the wall and a stack of CDs in the corner. A vintage glass-front bookcase in a stairway holds a collection of National Geographic magazines from the 1980s.
Touring the mansion doesn’t feel like visiting a museum. It’s more like exploring your grandmother’s attic.
Signs of natural aging are evident everywhere – a cracked ceiling fresco here, a bit of water damage there. Rooms are packed with knick-knacks, historic photos and artwork, giving the house a raw, lived-in feel.
Here, history is not a distant, isolated period to be studied. It is right there in the room, living and breathing with you. This is a home, and people lived their lives here.
And unlike most museums, this one allows you to spend the night. For $115 a night (including breakfast and a guided tour), you can stay in the master suite that was once occupied by Clark himself, in his day one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on Earth.
For less money, you can stay in the family room, either of Clark’s daughters’ rooms, or even the tidy butler’s room (only $65).
Of course, luxury in the Victorian era and luxury today are different things. The beds are small, and you’ll have to do without television, air conditioning, a phone or a shower.
But you also get an experience that a chain motel simply can’t provide, and in that context, these inconveniences become more charming than annoying.
If staying in an old mansion isn’t your thing, the nearby Finlen Hotel (100 E. Broadway) offers a good location with more modern accommodations.
The Finlen is Butte’s answer to the Davenport. A restored jewel that dates to 1924, it’s smaller and less elaborate, but elegant nevertheless. The room rates, which run from $58 to $76, are hard to beat.
Shopping, shopping, shopping
Those historic buildings and homes were, of course, filled with furniture, lamps, dishes and other household items at one time, which makes Butte a great spot for antique shopping. There are four shops in Uptown within easy walking distance of each other, as well as an impressive used book store and a thrift store.
Fashionistas will want to stop at Rediscoveries (83 E. Park St.), which specializes in high-end, yet reasonably priced, vintage clothing. Owner Brian Mogren’s inventory includes fashions from throughout the 20th century, as well as quilts, fabrics and other knick-knacks. (We overheard one shopper from New York proclaiming herself to be “in shoe heaven” while perusing the selection.)
A hole in the ground
Although the words “Superfund site” didn’t make their way into the Convention and Visitors Bureau brochure, no visit to Butte is complete without a stop at the Berkeley Pit, the vast, contaminated chasm left by decades of open-pit mining operations just east of Uptown. For an admission fee of $2, you can access a viewing stand overlooking the pit, which connects to the parking lot by a short tunnel.
The pit, nearly a mile and a half wide and more than a quarter-mile deep, was first mined in 1955 and was closed in 1982. The operation displaced several neighborhoods on the east side of the city, documented by photo displays at the pit, including an image of a dump truck unloading directly onto the roof of a church.
The mines are still productive, if on a smaller scale. Looking to the east from the viewing stand, you can see massive trucks hauling ore from the nearby Continental Pit.
Lunch fit for a miner
Another bit of living history is the pasty (pronounced “PASS-tee”), a meat pie that has been a staple in mining communities in Europe and the United States, and is still served in several restaurants in Butte.
A pasty consists of beef, potatoes and onions stuffed into a pastry crust (picture a calzone filled with corned beef hash). For miners, the pasty provided a compact, portable and inexpensive hot meal. The thickly creased crust, it is said, provided a handhold that could be disposed of later (the mines weren’t equipped with hand-washing stations, after all).
These days, at diners like the nondescript Joe’s Pasty Shop (a local favorite, about a mile southeast of the Uptown district), you can get your pasty plain or with brown gravy on top.
And feel free to devour the whole crust – after a full day of wandering Butte’s hilly streets, you’ll need the energy.