In its heyday, from the late 19th century to about 1920, Butte was one of the largest and most notorious copper boomtowns in the West, with a maze of over 10,000 miles of mines beneath it’s surface. As was common in the early wild west, Butte was home to hundreds of saloons and a famous red-light district. The documentary Butte, America depicts its history as a copper producer and the issues of labor unionism, economic rise and decline, and environmental degradation that resulted from the activity.
During the mining boom, Butte’s population rose to over 100,000, as it became the largest city west of the Mississippi. Now, while most American cities have gown, Butte’s population has contracted to less than 35,000.
Strolling around the town, the streets are wide, roomy, and curiously quiet. In Butte’s lovely historic neighborhoods, you could put a couch out in the middle of the street and sit there for a couple days and get a good nap in. Which is exactly what was depicted in Wim Winder’s excellent film – Don’t Come Knocking – starring Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange. In a humorous touching moment, Shepard pulls a discarded couch out into the street, sits down, and for many hours, simply sits and contemplates his life. All the while, Wender’s keen-eyed Director of Photography, Franz Lustig, captures the beauty of Butte as the scene unwinds through morning, to evening, to night. It is a seminal moment in the film, and beautifully captures the quiet of Butte, as the city takes a rest from all that went before.
Our stay in Butte is brief. Arriving late, we find a room at the Hampton Inn – very comfortable, clean, and spacious. The next morning, before hitting the highway to Yellowstone, we do a driving tour of downtown Butte.
When you visit Butte and it’s older sections, much of its history can be seen in the buildings – the ornate stone architecture and fading old fashioned billboards on the stone-walled businesses.
We center ourselves in the historic heart of the city and begin to stroll. This is a great walking town. Traffic is light, and the layout is easy to navigate. Every block holds something of interest – old banks, butcher, bookstores, restaurants, pubs, music venues – all of it built from stone mined beneath Butte.
As we walk, we keep a lookout for the art gallery where Jessica Lange slugged Sam Shepard with her purse in the movie in Don’t Come Knocking.
Looking for an iced tea, we ask a local, who suggests The Venus Rising Espresso House. Turns out this is the local coffee house owned and operated by the Butte Silver Bow Arts Foundation. Good tea, good cause.
Preparing for our camping trip to Yellow Stone National Park in Wyoming, and Bear Butte in South Dakota, we pick up some supplies at the well-stocked Bob Ward’s sporting goods store. I could spend an hour in this place, squeezing between tightly packed rows of clothing, fly fishing gear, boating, camping furniture, shoes, … Finding what we need, at a good price, we set out for Yellow Stone National Park.