Butte: Montana's Irish Immigrant Mining Town History


Then 1929 hit America with the biggest bust it had ever seen. A new era for workers arrived in 1932 when FDR ran on his promise of a New Deal and support for labor unions. Newly confident union workers were legally empowered to strike, and  many did so in a pattern of every three years: the length of a contract. This led to a striking cycle in which mining families were forced to do without, but mining communities supported them with a created economy of credit, gift and barter. This community support during strike times, which many considered the highest moral achievement, also helped the miners achieve a living wage.

Still, The Company’s hold on Butte was ever-present, as it became more and more entwined in the daily lives of the families who lived there. Company-sponsored picnics, parade floats, and children’s sports teams were common, and miners’ kids grew up playing in the toxic playgrounds near active mines. However, by the 1940s, Anaconda’s profit was largely supplemented by overseas mining in Chile, which gave The Company a significant advantage in negotiating mining contracts with unions.

After a lifetime in the mines, if they survived the day-to-day perils of the machinery and conditions, many miners experienced a buildup of silica dust in their lungs and died painful deaths. After WWII, the prominence of industrial manufacture meant that greater and greater quantities of metal were needed. In the 1950s, Anaconda shifted their operations towards open pit mining, which utilized equipment and machines over manpower and caused greater environmental degradation. Miners were consistently laid off, and those that remained were turned into drivers and machine operators, stripping the work of the pride that men had had in it for generations. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make room for pit mines, and the remaining families were surrounded with gaping holes in the town they called home. When a fire swept across Butte, many believed it was set by The Company to destroy buildings in the way of more open pits. “They owned it, that’s all that mattered,” remembered one Butte citizen. “You can do anything you want when you own it.”

In 1977, Anaconda was purchased by the ARCO company, which started shutting down mines due to lower metal prices. Layoffs continued to wrack Butte economically and emotionally, as men who had given their lives to the mines were rewarded by being cast aside. In 1982, the pit mines began to close and unemployment was rampant. By 1984 the Berkeley Pit was the greatest poisonous lake in North America: thirty-three billion gallons of water laced with a toxic sludge of minerals and chemicals killed snow geese that migrated overhead and came into contact with the water. The environmental, emotional and economic devastation that characterized the rise and fall of Butte, Montana under the hand of the mining business remains evident today.

However, the spirit of community support that characterized Butte through the mining era remains. Since 1882, Butte’s annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities have provided an annual celebration of the city’s Irish heritage. Over 30,000 attend the parade held by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Butte’s historic Uptown District. The annual An Ri Ra, held on the second weekend in August, is a cultural festival that focuses on the music, dance and language of Ireland. Thousands attend the event. Once called “The Richest Hill on Earth” for its natural resources, which along with hardworking immigrant labor was plundered for profit, Butte is carving out a new identity as a city with a rich cultural history and pride in its Irish heritage.

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