Until last week the closest I’d come to Butte, Montana, was on another trip several years ago when I pulled off Interstate 90 to buy gas. “One of these days” I promised, I’d actually go into town and look around.
I knew of the town’s rough-and-tumble history, how it had earned the nickname The Richest Hill on Earth through subsequent booms in gold, silver and copper mining, and how, after living well beyond its means, it had fallen into a long decline.
And there’s all that decadent old brick, blocks and blocks of it clustered on the hillside and beckoning to the photographer.
So last weekend we drove north out of West Yellowstone, up Highway 191 towards Belgrade, and bucked a headwind into Butte, arriving in late afternoon. A short stop at the visitors center proved helpful in getting our bearings, and we headed uptown towards the historic district.
First, though, we cut over on Park Street to the Berkeley Pit, the mammoth hole left over from years of serious digging. They weren’t charging admission, and we had the viewing platform to ourselves. It isn’t a large space, but the entire pit sprawls out before you. On this day the water’s surface was calm, and the steep walls reflected on it reminded me of our own Crater Lake. Except, of course, these waters were anything but blue.
Armed with a map of historic buildings, my wife pointed us towards our first surprise: the Hotel Finlen. When she’d mentioned it was under renovation I expected scaffolding and a CLOSED sign on the door, but instead we walked into a wonderfully upscale lobby and simply stopped in our tracks, small figures in a forest of copper-accented pillars that reached to a high ceiling. Chandeliers completed the magic. “May we see a room?”
I could argue for fluffier towels, but that’s nitpicking: all else at the Finlen was excellent. My sole regret is that we couldn’t stay longer.
It’s a great base for exploring the town on foot, following the numbers on a historic map (Old Firehouse, et cetera) but mostly walking around and imagining the town as it might have been when it was fresh and alive. Quite a number of buildings are being restored to their past opulence (so sayeth the brochures) but there are also many storefronts that are vacant or downright derelict in condition. In the rich evening sunlight I looked for vibrant bricks, neon signs, and other, unexpected things, and was not disappointed.
And I only scratched at the town’s surface. We were tired after two weeks on the road and headed home. What would a second (or third) day have brought? We didn’t have time this time to answer that question, but Butte is no longer merely a dot on the map and a place to be passed by hurriedly on the way to somewhere else.