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.

12 Reasons Butte is Good for Business

As we’ve discussed on this blog before, Butte is a place of history and character, hence the nickname Butte, America. Nevertheless, history and character don’t put food on the table.  In addition to being a great place to live, Butte is a great place to locate your business.  How is that, you ask?  

We can think of 12 reasons how, which we’ve listed here.  

  • Location – Situated at the intersection of Interstate Highways 15 and 90, and along both the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroads, we are the best placed location for manufacturing expansion and development, and also the best placed location for distribution anywhere in the Rocky Mountain West.  
  • Infrastructure – Butte’s rich history of both light and heavy industry has resulted in well developed infrastructure and capacity.  The Bert Mooney Airport offers daily flights to regional hubs, just a few minutes’ drive from uptown.  There’s ready access to water, sanitation, gas and electric utilities, high speed fiber, as well as the highway and railroads listed above.  In addition, local crane and heavy hauling services, equipment rentals and dealerships make doing business in Butte more convenient and affordable.
  • Reduced Import/Export Costs – The Port of Montana services rail cars and trucks, with a 86,000 pound lift capacity and both indoor and outdoor storage.  The Port of Montana and Montana Connections are located in a designated Foreign Trade Zone, which eliminates costs on import and export duties (explained in greater detail in each entities’ linked pages).  
  • A Talented Workforce – Butte is home to businesses spanning sectors including high-tech manufacturing, healthcare/life sciences, information technologies, energy utilities and geophysical consulting, which combine to generate and attract a talented workforce.  
  • An Outstanding University –  Montana Tech of the University of Montana has earned such accolades as the fourth best value in higher education nationwide and the fourth best public university in the west by the Princeton Review, and the ninth best public university for return on investment nationwide by the Wall Street Journal.  With degrees ranging from earth and health sciences, and in 12 engineering fields, Montana Tech keeps the workforce talent pool fresh and deep.
  • An Outstanding Technical/Trade School – Montana Tech offers certificates and Associate’s Degrees in fields including Aerospace Welding Technology, Machining Technology and Metals Fabrication, ensuring that Butte’s manufacturing base is staffed and state-of-the-art.
  • Low Home Prices -As of this writing, Realtor.com reports the median listing price of homes in Butte is $119k, compared to Missoula’s $315k and Bozeman’s $385k. Butte is an inexpensive place to be a homeowner, plain and simple.
  • Access to Outdoor Recreation –  Surrounding Butte are 3.2 million acres of National Forest, with ample opportunity for mountain biking, rock climbing, dirt biking, hunting and fishing.  There are 7 alpine ski areas within 3 hours of Butte, and Moulton Reservoir hosts nordic ski trails, operated by the Mile High Nordic Ski Club.  Three golf courses serve the area, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course in nearby Anaconda.
  • Work Ethic –  During its peak production years, Butte’s mining industry supplied copper to electrify the nation, supply the World War I buildup and establish telegraph connections with the rest of the world.  Around the clock, thousands of people toiled underground in Butte’s mines, instilling an unwavering work ethic that persists to this day.
  • Great Food –  Keeping the old world, neighborhood grocery store alive, the Front Street Market operates a full service deli, offers a full wine selection, and has something for the gourmet in all of us.  The M&M Bar and Cafe first opened in 1890, and has enough neon and polished stainless steel to satisfy the diner enthusiast in all of us.  They make a great burger, too.
The M&M Bar and Cafe | Source: Flickr
  • Summertime Festivals –  The Montana Folk Festival is one of the Northwest’s largest music festivals, hosting more than 20 acts, with food vendors and artists’ booths scattered throughout uptown.  Even better, attendance is free of charge.  For the more adventurous, Evel Knievel Days bills itself as ‘the only extreme sports festival of its kind in the world,’ a claim that can’t be refuted.  It’s three days of stunts, spectacles and generally following Butte native Evel Knievel’s risk-taking example.
  • Strong Cultural Heritage –  Butte is steeped in its Irish heritage, which it celebrates any chance it can.  St Patrick’s day in Butte is a regional draw of revelry in the streets, which, without any open container law can get quite spirited.  The An Rí Rá Montana Irish Festival celebrates Butte’s Irish heritage, and is regarded as one of the best Irish festivals in the country.

We’ve listed 12 reasons Butte is good for business, but there might as well be a million.  The point is, it’s a great place to live, work and play.  After all, that’s what doing business is for, at least in Butte, America it is.

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