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The Copper Kings of Butte, MT

Updated on October 19, 2011

Butte, Montana

The city of Butte, MT has a rich history, which can be taken quite literally, given the presence of the Richest Hill on Earth. The city, like so many other mining towns, was established by the 1860s Gold Rush. But after 1870, the production of the gold mines declined sharply, and their awful practice of hydraulic digging left the landscape in an abysmal state, with gaping holes and mounds of slag.

Most miners moved to other places, but a few companies remained and tried to develop different ways to extract gold, silver, copper, manganese, zinc and lead from the quartz ore. For ten years, only the production of silver kept the city alive.

But in 1880, four major events coincided to profoundly change history.

• Miners chanced upon the richest copper vein that was ever found.
• New smelting techniques made the mining of copper and other metals profitable.
• The railroads reached Butte.
• The fulgurant development of electricity and telecommunications caused an instant need for millions of kilometers of copper wire !

Almost instantly, Butte developed into a mini-New York, with theaters, luxury hotels, the best restaurants, horse racing, gambling, and a marvelous amusement park!

Daly and Clark
Daly and Clark

The three Copper Kings

Wealthy copper barons fought each other during the years, for more power and more wealth. They were called the three Copper Kings.

William A. Clark was the first, the last and the richest of this infamous trio. Marcus DalyFritz A. Heinze founded the Anaconda mine, and , a former surveyor for Daly, became king number three.

Although all three were multimillionaires, they fought each other tooth and nail, and certainly didn't concern themselves with such small details as honesty and legality...

Under the ground, "accidentally" a lot of digging happened to be done on a competitor's property. At that time, the law actually allowed miners to follow a profitable ore vein, even if it continued under someone else's property !

Especially Heinze became very good at buying land next to Daly's, and then digging underground to reach the latter's veins... Even if he didn't have the gift of discovering good prospects, he had all of the local judges and lawyers in his wallet, so that lawsuits dragged on for decades, and by then the vein was completely milked...

When in 1905 this absurd law was changed, he simply sold everything and moved to New York.

Butte's later history

World War I "helped" a lot, because the weapon industry needed copper... By 1920, the region had more than two hundred mines, and the population had risen to 100,000 inhabitants. Prosperity continued up to the 1950s, when the declining quality of the ore and competition from other mines led to the switch of underground mining to open pit mining. This marked the end of Butte's boom.

After that, the city fell in complete disrepair, and today, postcards and magazine pictures look far better than the actual city. Nevertheless, the local Tourism Office does its very best to promote every point of interest.

Just an example. In 1917, a fire broke out in a mine, and 168 miners died in miserable circumstances. The local documentation informed us that in 1996 a memorial was built to honor and commemorate these unfortunate miners. While certainly a most noble initiative, sceptics could wonder why it took eighty years to do so, and regret that the local taxpayers had to foot the bill for this memorial, and not the people that actually made fortunes from the work of these miners !

Hamilton : the Daly Mansion

Hamilton is located some 60 miles south of Missoula. Along the way we passed the village of Lolo, which is interesting, merely by its name...

The landscape is much greener than further east, and the fields appear to be in much better shape. Apparently, this is due to the fact that the western wind brings in rain clouds from the Pacific, and almost all of their water comes down before and just behind the Rocky Mountains.

In 1876, Marcus Daly started buying land in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. Eventually, he owned about 11,200 hectares (27,600 acres). In 1890 he built his summer residence in Hamilton, but unfortunately he passed away ten years later.

In 1910, his wife Margaret rebuilt the mansion to its current Georgian Revival style, with 42 rooms, 25 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms and 7 fireplaces. Margaret Daly died in 1941, and the estate has now been reduced to 20 hectares (50 acres).


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