Exploring Historic Butte, Montana

by Barbara Lee \ Photo ©  John Costell

Vast wealth from mining, richly ornamented homes, a grand business district, and immigrant workers pouring into a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods: this was the boomtown of Butte, Montana, a century ago. Many of the town’s historic structures are still standing today, part of a National Historic District that includes Butte and nearby communities Walkerville and Anaconda.

In Butte, you encounter the past at every turn. Elaborate Victorian houses are just down the hill from where miners labored a mile underground, and commercial buildings stand a short distance from the former Dumas Brothel. The Convention and Visitors Bureau provides a self-guided tour map of numerous historic sites, and guided tours are seasonally available.

Copper was the source of prosperity in Butte, and, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, three powerful mine owners were known as the “Copper Kings.” The most famous of the three was William A. Clark, whose admiration of all things French was reflected in the family’s ornate home. Built in 1896, the Clark Mansion is currently a privately owned bed and breakfast, but public tours are offered on a seasonal basis.

The Charles Clark Chateau is another French-inspired mansion, a wedding gift from William A. Clark to his son and daughter-in-law. Be sure to check when the 1898 structure is open to the public. The Chateau is decidedly different from the city’s Painted Ladies, brightly-colored Victorian residences that aren’t open for tours, but merit a long look from outside.

The elegant, 1906 Metals Bank Building now houses a restaurant. You’re welcome to see the original features inside, including a huge, walk-in vault. Not far away stands the Finlen Hotel, dating from 1924 and featuring historical photos on display.

The World Museum of Mining presents a vivid look at the history of Butte’s thousands of immigrant laborers and their families and offers an underground tour of the old Orphan Girl Mine. If you’re in Butte at night, look for the brightly lit, one- to two-hundred-foot headframes over the now closed mines—symbols of the town’s dramatic past.

Butte is located near I-90 in southwestern Montana. For descriptions, directions and scheduled events, visit the Butte Convention and Visitors Bureau at buttecvb.com, and for more specialized information, visit the Butte Historical Society at buttehistorical.org and the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives at buttearchives.org.