Friday, June 18, 2021
We arrived in Butte this morning, and first visited the Montana Mineral Museum at the Montana School of Mining. The school was founded in 1900, and the first artifacts acquired in 1901 for teaching purposes. Over the past 120 years, the number of items in their collections has grown from 177 to over 13,000 from all over the world, of which about 1,000 are on display. The museum is located on the college campus and is free to the public.
We next stopped at the Berkeley Pit, which was mined for copper from 1955 to 1982. The pit is about 1800 feet deep, over one mile long and nearly a mile wide. Several neighborhoods were removed to allow for the mining operations. The owners were compensated at market value for their homes, then given the option to buy them back for $1 and move them elsewhere. Homes not repurchased were demolished. About one billion tons of material were removed: copper, silver and gold, which gave Butte its nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth.”
While the pit mine was in operation, groundwater was constantly being pumped out. Once the mine closed, the pit quickly filled up. The water is extremely toxic, containing high concentrations of copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc. It also contains arsenic. Nothing can live here. Migrating waterfowl have made the mistake of landing here, drinking the water and dying shortly thereafter. Ongoing efforts, including noises, predator drones and even wind are used to deter waterfowl, proving to be about 99% effective. Maybe we can try something like that at home to keep the geese out of our yard!
The Berkeley Pit is the largest Superfund Site in the United States. The water level must be kept below 5410 feet above sea level to prevent it seeping into the surrounding land. Butte sits at about 5800 feet above sea level. A water treatment facility on site pumps water continuously from the pit, treats it and releases it into Silver Bow Creek. At that point, it is clean enough to drink.
Overlooking the mine is Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90 foot statue that sits on the Continental Divide.
We then headed to The World Museum of Mining, which was founded in 1963 while mining was still big industry in the area. In just over 100 years, 3 million ounces of gold, 700 million ounces of silver, 850 million pounds of lead, almost 4 billion pounds of manganese, almost 5 billion pounds of zinc and over 20 billion pounds of copper were mined here.
The Museum is located on a mine yard, the Orphan Girl Mine, where silver, lead and zinc were mined. Many artifacts remain at the site, including the Hoist House, headframe, ore bins, and rail cars. You can visit a re-creation of an 1890s mining town and take an underground mine tour. We’ve done a few in other locations, so passed that up today.
We enjoyed cocktails at the Fifty One Below Speakeasy in the old downtown area of Butte, then dined at Mac’s a couple of blocks away. We recommend both.