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?
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.
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.