A Documentary by Pamela Roberts
Written by Eugene Carr and Edwin Dobb
Pamela Roberts’ careful “Butte, America” is an ode to the Old West. As a documentary it’s a very effective requiem to that lost world of romance and mayhem. Scene by scene, in a mix of interviews and archival clips, she chronicles a mosaic of western lives in the Northern Rockies, many of them cut short but still full of resonance.
“Tap her light!” is how husbands and wives said goodbye before men set off to work in the copper mines of Butte, Montana,” according to John Shea. “And I never ever said goodbye going off to work in the mornin’!”
It was a kind of good-luck prayer, a local salutation meaning “Don’t bang the dynamite in so tight it blows your head off!” Occupational casualties were always enormous in the company town where whole families from Southwest Ireland descended deep into the rock every day except Sundays, when they buried the dead. Later on, the influx swept in everyone from Mexicans and Filipinos to Bosnians and Chinese.
For decades Butte was like a smaller version of Pittsburgh. The universal need for copper when electricity arrived took it from the rough mining camp of the 1870s to a bustling metropolis overnight.
Just as few would have guessed from the surrounding peaks at 10,000 feet that Butte was sitting on over 10,000 tons of copper, few would now guess that the city was once known for rambunctious debauchery and gambling. It was a byword for fun and round-the-clock entertainment during Prohibition days, when it boasted the largest red light district in the West. It was impossible to cultivate gardens there, because of the smoke and filthy air from the smelters that even killed livestock. Eventually Anaconda built taller smelters, public gardens and an amusement park for miners’ families.
Ironically, most of Butte was torn down by Anaconda, the very same company that created it in the first place. Yet its Dublin Gulch neighborhood still brims with Sheas, Sullivans, O’Neills, Driscolls, Lynches and Harringtons. Button accordions are still played, and its Saint Patrick’s Day is still the big one. Whole families and entire villages from Cork and the Irish Southwest moved here en masse, and many remain.
Butte miners and citizens – all eloquent, mostly Irish plus an Italian, a Mexican – tell us about hard old days and grand old times, movingly describing losing best friends in the interconnected tunnels under Butte, where ‘No Smoking’ signs in sixteen languages hung.
Destined for local public TV stations all over the West, the documentary interviews scholars and ex-miners for separate histories – the so-called Copper Kings and their struggle for dominance, the stormy labor struggles of the unions against Anaconda, the lynching of the part-native American union leader Frank Little, all adding up to a continuing confrontation of the miners and their fight for better treatment against the company bosses.
In the early part of the Twentieth Century nobody denied the miners the respect due for an undeniably hard job, and wages were not too shabby, despite conditions below and above. Mining possessed glamour on account of its danger and what an interviewee calls “the beauty of the rock.”
But eventually those Anaconda bosses moved on to Chile, unions were squelched, and miners lost out in several different ways – to silicosis, the bulldozers, internecine fighting in the unions, and massive unemployment during the recessions. Open-cast mining and its toxic legacy took care of the rest. “I can’t describe the feeling of devastation when they tore my Gran’s house down,” says one local survivor. “We had an all night party to say goodbye to it. I sat up on the hill on the tracks and cried.” The party was singing ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ down below. “I lost a lot of me in there.”
Of the 90,000 souls eking out a hard-scrabble living in a densely urban industrial city throughout most of the last century, traces remain. Butte didn’t so much die as get butchered during the open-cast rape of the mountain in the sixties, and that’s actually not too strong a word when you watch buildings getting blasted and dragged down to the rocks.
It’s almost a physically painful thing to watch. The sense of community, however, somehow survives. The giant Rio-style statue now overlooking the city, vaguely Catholic in nature, is a testament to that. The statue is very typical of Butte’s fighting-Irish spirit and somehow lends a note of hope to its partial renaissance.