Why Butte Has the Best Labor Force in the West

We’ve discussed on this blog before why Butte makes a great place to call home. From the picturesque mountains, ski-trails and blue-ribbon trout streams within an hour’s drive, to the famous Irish festivals, to the low cost of living, Butte really is a wonderful place to live.

A picture of butte, with downtown in the foreground and the hill in the background. Cars driving up and down main street.
The Richest Hill on Earth

Such a city attracts innovative, hard-working people that will help your business grow and prosper. Here are just a few reasons Butte has the best labor force in the west:

Willing to work

At the turn of the 20th century, Butte’s copper electrified the nation. In the midst of World War I, Butte ramped up their mining efforts, working around the clock to supply the lion’s share of copper for the war efforts and established telegraph connections with the rest of the world.

A black and white photo of miners posing outside their mine in two rows.
Miners posing outside of a mine entrance.

Meanwhile, Butte engineered a way to harness the power of water and worked tirelessly to keep its ever-expanding mines powered.

The people of Butte always preserved, even if that meant working all hours of the day, instilling a strong work-ethic that still persists in the town today.

Highly educated

But the tenacity of the town isn’t the only reason Butte is known for its talented workforce. The working population is highly educated. Around 90 percent of adults in Butte graduated college, while another 25 percent have a college education or higher, according to the United States Census Bureau. This is on par with nationwide education attainment statistics.

Moreover, the city of Butte has a strong relationship with its outstanding college, Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

Montana Tech, which was named one of the “Best in the West” universities in 2011 by the Princeton Review, focuses on engineering and health sciences and offers associates degrees in Aerospace Welding Technology, Machining Technology and Metals Fabrication (among others).  

An archway that reads "Montana Tech" in the foreground with buildings in the background.
The Arch entrance to Montana Tech.

With such a university, Butte’s workforce continually gets waves of excited, well-trained graduates for its manufacturing and other job fields.

Diverse Business Sectors

The county of Butte-Silver Bow is a mecca for business, spanning sectors in high-tech manufacturing, healthcare/life sciences, information technologies, energy utilities and geophysical consulting. More and more businesses continue to relocate to or expand in Butte, including FedEx, SeaCast and REC Silicon.  

A group of signs showing where businesses are in an industrial park.
Companies currently at the MCBDP

The diverse array of businesses attracts a strong labor from within the city, state and beyond. With the support of the city-county and this talented workforce, these industries are assured to continue to grow and prosper.

By starting or expanding your business in Butte, you’ll be able to tap into the talented, hard-working labor force that Butte is known for.

How Irish Immigration Shaped Butte

Once a bustling, mining town worth billions, Butte, population 35,000,  is a hard-working, no-nonsense town that’s known for marching to the beat of its own drum. After all, its nickname is Butte, America.

A quiet street with some businesses to the left and a couple cars driving.
A view down one of the most historic streets in Montana.

But you can’t appreciate Butte’s rich, unique culture—past and present—without understanding the influence of the Irish that migrated to Montana beginning in the late 1800s.

Finding the American Dream

People were first attracted to Butte through gold’s illustrious siren song, but by the 1870’s riverbeds had run dry and the town was on its decline. Then miners discovered Butte’s rich veins of silver ore and from there, copper. By the 20th century, Butte was the world’s largest copper-mining town. For decades to come it would be one of the most prosperous cities in America—especially for immigrants.

Men wearing kilts and playing bag pipes marching down the street.
A group of bagpipers marching during Butte’s famous St. Patty’s Day Parade.

This economic opportunity drew pioneering men from across oceans who desired to make a better life for their families. Immigrants came from around the world: Ireland, England, Lebanon, Canada, Finland Austria, Italy, China, Montenegro and Mexico. It’s said the “no smoking” signs in mines were written in sixteen languages.

A mine shaft entrance with a large NO SMOKING sign hanging above it.
The dangers of mining for a living.

But no other cultural group flocked to Butte quite like the Irish. To escape the Great Irish Famine, which lasted between 1845 and 1852 and killed millions of Irish men and women, scores of people fled the country, escaping to America. And by America, I mean Butte.

At the height of Butte’s prosperity, the city housed more Irish than any other American city. According to the book, The Butte Irish, by the turn of the 20th century the Irish made up a quarter of Butte’s population, immigrating from Cork, Mayo, Donegal, Kerry, Cavan and Wexford.

A group of men pose for a photograph in front of a mine shaft entrance.
Unionizing enabled Irish miners to accumulate enough wealth to settle down in Butte.

The Irish immediately took to unionizing, protecting their economic interests that had been suppressed by the British back home, said Irish professor, Donnchadh O Baoill, quoted in a 2013 Montana Standard article. Thus began a long, sometimes deadly battle between the unions and the large mining corporations that controlled the town.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the tremulous life in Butte, the Irish formed a tight, strong community that persevered through these dark times. Their influence shaped the city into what it is today.

Butte today

The city’s Irish heritage permeates everyday life in the city to this day. The Irish community in Butte is tightknit and fiercely loyal to the country from which they’re descended. Children learn Irish dance at the Tiernan Irish dancing school, famous Irishmen like the Irish ambassador to the United States  have stopped to speak in the city and local Irish band, Dublin Gulch, are beloved by the community.

They celebrate this heritage every chance they get—no way more obvious than the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities (which started in 1882). According to the magazine, Irish America, over 30,000 people from around the state and country gather in Butte to celebrate the city’s heritage. Festivities include the famous parade through the historic Uptown district, held by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  

A logo for the An Ri Ra Irish Festival in Butte.
Butte pays tribute to it’s Irish heritage in many ways.

The annual An Ri Ra Irish Festival is an equally impressive celebration of Irish culture. Held by the Montana Gaelic Cultural Society, the festival highlights traditional Irish art, including dance and music, and offers Irish language classes and impressive raffle prizes (like a trip to Ireland). It’s regarded as one of the best Irish festivals in North America.

Live in Butte and you’ll see why it’s known as one of the most Irish cities in America.

 

How Butte Ingenuity Powered Montana

In 1812, the town of Butte was little more than an assortment of mining tents. Fast-forward nearly 100 years and Butte was booming as one of the most prosperous cities in the United States. Butte, America generated millions of dollars mining the Richest Hill on Earth, while creating thousands of high-paying jobs and a rich, multinational culture.

There was only one problem: Mining operations require an ample, reliable supply of energy, which in the late 1800s wasn’t exactly easy to come by. But rivers were.

As a headwaters state, Montana boasts roaring rivers, including the headwaters to the Missouri (which in turn becomes the Mississippi), Columbia and Hudson Bay basins.

Early residents decided to harness the power of these waters, and as the largest and richest city in the state at the time, Butte was at the forefront of this innovation.

Hydroelectric Beginnings:

Less than ten years after the first hydroelectric facility opened in the United States — engineers built the Black Eagle Dam in Great Falls, Montana. Shortly thereafter, the bulk of hydroelectric projects shifted to be closer to Butte and its mining operations.

The Black Eagle Dam

A series of small power companies formed, merged, then reformed, harnessing the energy from the Madison and Missouri Rivers, two mighty bodies of water that flow within a few miles of Butte proper.

Almost all of the mining operations in Butte and nearby Anaconda ran off of this hydro power, creating a legacy you can still see in the state today. According to a 2015 U.S Energy Information Administration report, over 30 percent of Montana’s generated net electricity stemmed from hydroelectric sources, compare that to to 6 percent nationwide.

The Creation of the Montana Power Company:

Still, these smaller power companies could not meet the demands of the newest economic powerhouse in town — the Anaconda Mining Company. In December of 1912, the head of the Anaconda Mining Company and the president of the First National Bank in Great Falls, Montana incorporated the Montana Power Company, merging the Butte Electric and Power Company with three of its subsidiaries.

Thus the Montana Power Company owned nearly all of the power facilities within the state — the bulk of which were hydroelectric generating plants on the Madison and Missouri Rivers.

This Butte-based powerhouse continued to acquire their competitors, while expanding the generating capacity of the assets they already owned. Between 1890 and 1975, Montana experienced a boom in electric power facilities that powered the entire state and beyond.

This golden era of power generation largely stemmed from Butte engineering and ingenuity — their answer to the state’s increased levels of power consumption.

The Montana Power Company thrived throughout the rest of the 20th century, expanding into the natural gas, oil and coal sector, creating jobs across the state.

In 2000, the Montana Power Company switched gears and became the telecommunications company, Touch America. They sold their remaining assets to Northwestern Energy, whose Montana headquarters remain in Butte, the city where it all began.

Butte’s history is long, rich, and full of remarkable resilience. Its ability to be innovative in the face of challenges, like utilizing the state’s abundance of rivers to generate power, is a trademark of its history and part of what makes the city an inspiring place to do business.

In Butte, you’ll never be left in the dark.

Why do they call it Butte, America?

Welcome to Butte, America.

Sure, Butte is located in the state of Montana, but its civic identity is best described as Butte, America.  I mean that in the most literal sense: the moniker shows up on license plates, in advertising and is the preferred place name for locals.   While the rest of the state brands itself with the usual themes of national parks, Hollywood movies and the Big Sky Country, there sits the contrarian stalwart, Butte, America.

It’s uncertain where Butte’s abbreviated name originated, but it’s been in use since the 1980’s, if not earlier.  In his book, Butte Trivia, George Everett, writes “the phrase was conceived by college students in Missoula as an insult and embraced by Butte residents as an apt description of their locale.”

Butte residents, for their part, tended to be immigrants still adopting, and adjusting to, their new American identity. In the words of historian David Emmons, “People in Butte never thought of themselves as Montanans. They identified first with Butte and then with places overseas—the countries they came from or other places where copper was mined.

So the name was either an insult or a point of pride, or maybe a little of both.

Considering that flipping insults into compliments characterizes the city’s defiant survival instinct, the name becomes more apt. In its heyday, thousands of miners worked up to a mile underground at a given time, around the clock.  Below is a computerized rendering of Butte’s underground mines showing the extent of the tunnels.  Amazing, huh?

Virtual map of Butte’s mines and tunnels | source: pitwatch.org

 

Even more amazing when you consider the personnel elevators could only carry so many people to the surface at a time.  This bottleneck was no more apparent than during the Granite Mountain mine disaster of 1917, which exacted the largest death toll in U.S. hard rock mining history.  When a lantern started a fire a half-mile underground, most of the 168 fatalities succumbed to asphyxia before they could escape to the surface.

All those man hours of underground toil and sacrifice weren’t for nothing, however.  Producing copper ore, the mines of Butte, America literally connected America to itself and the rest of the world.  During the nationwide buildout of electricity and telecommunications, Butte mining produced up to 20% of all domestic copper.

In more recent times, that same bareknuckle determination reincarnated itself in Butte’s native son, the daredevil Evel Knievel, who racked up 433 bone fractures from his record-breaking motorcycle jumps.  In true Butte form, after Knievel’s jumps he made speeches to his audience -frequently injured and bleeding profusely, just before being whisked to the hospital in an ambulance.  When his doctors were warning him that he might not walk again, Knievel was plotting his next spectacular stunt, done while festooned in his signature red, white and blue jumpsuit.

source: evelknievel.com

 

source: nydailynews.com
source: evelknievel.com

 

If that’s not Butte, America, I don’t know what is.

Among Montana’s cities, Butte marches to its own drum, and if you spend enough time here you’ll see what I’m talking about:  Built on a hillside, locals use the term ‘uptown’ to the office district most cities would consider downtown.  Instead of offering the usual fare like Pizza and burritos, restaurants advertise pasties and breaded pork chop sandwiches.  Even the language is localized, with colloquial speech including the plural ‘you’ pronounced “you’s.” It’s a relic of the American melting pot of days past, in constant reinvention on its own terms.

Caption: The Cornish Pasty, a Butte staple food | source: danvfood.files.wordpress.com