The Sins of Butte

Tales from the Berkeley Pit

Image courtesy of the US EPA.

Standing on a ridge overlooking the expansive Berkeley Pit, a pungent smell emanates from the murky waters below, leaving a slight burn in my nostrils. This is Butte, nestled in a valley that straddles the Continental Divide, high up in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. A little over a hundred years ago, Butte was a boomtown, ruled by copper and raging with prosperity. Industrious miners from Ireland to China ventured to this remote place to strike it rich or at least make a decent living. In its heyday, Butte was a bastion of socialist politics. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was active in the early 1900s and, along with other labor factions, fought the monopolies of Butte’s three Copper Kings; Marcus Daly, William A. Clark, and F. Augustus Heinze. It was a tough, violent era, and miners were known to let off steam in local gambling dens, brothels, and bars. A historical plaque in town sums Butte’s past well: “She was a bold, unashamed, rootin’, tootin’, hell roarin’ camp in days gone by, and she still drinks her liquor straight.”

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JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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