Friday, June 09, 2006

Butte, Montana

Kevin Garrison of Avweb recently had a nice article about layovers in which he claimed that "a good layover isn't a place, it is an attitude." I can get behind that statement. My best layovers have had little to do with where we were staying, and everything to do with my crew and how we decided to spend our time. With a cool crew and/or something interesting to do, you can be staying in a pigsty in Cowpoke, Iowa, and still have a great time.

That said...most places you go have attitudes of their own that can't help but affect the way you feel about them. Some cities burst with energy and ambition; some towns happily laze along through the decades; a few are content to stay as nondescript as the Holiday Inn rooms the airline rents. And then, there are locales that exude the bittersweet wistfullness of a has-been that time left behind, slowly sinking into decay as ever greater numbers of scornful youngsters flee to the big city. Butte, Montana, is one of those places.

Butte was once one of the great mining towns of the west. It got its start in the 1870's with the discovery of silver and gold in the area, but it was ultimately copper that brought fame and fortune to Butte after production tapered off in erstwhile Copper Kings like Great Britain and Chile. In the early 1900's, around 1/3 of the United States' copper came from Butte. World War One, in particular, proved to be a boon to the town as bullet production quickly spiked demand for copper. At one point, the local Anaconda Mining Company was the fourth largest corporation in the world.

The abundance of mining work ballooned the city to 115,000 inhabitants at its peak in 1915. It was a notorious law-free zone in the best (or worst) boom-town tradition, with hundreds of saloons, bordellos, and gambling parlors lining the mud streets. Recent immigrants formed the majority of the mining workforce, with Irish imigrees particularly well respresented: Butte was once called "Ireland's Fifth Province," and Irish remains the prominent ethnicity among today's residents. In fact, the President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese, recently paid a visit to Butte.

Butte's long decline began in the 1950's with the introduction of open pit mining. Although safer and more profitable than underground mining methods, it was far less labor intensive, and the town began shrinking as the steady supply of work dried up and the mine companies razed large portions of the town for pit mining operations. Alas, open pit mining proved to be enormously damaging to the environment, and the gigantic Berkeley Pit ceased operations in 1982.

These days, there's not much copper money left in Butte. The monsterous gash north of town that once provided so many miners' livelihoods now silently fills with toxic water in etherworldly swirls of aquamarine, amber, and indigo. While this has made the Berkeley Pit the town's biggest tourist attraction, it is also the nation's largest remaining Superfund site, and high lead and arsenic levels have plagued the area for years.

While I haven't found any bordellos recently, Butte still has a disproportionately large number of drinking and gambling establishments for any town of 36,000 souls. Sitting with a cocktail in a dark and smoky lounge, you'll look hard for the ghosts of exhuberent miners celebrating their newfound prosperity, but it's hard to see them among the knots of tired and haggard looking citizens gloomily plunking another quarter into the slot machines. Saint Patrick's Day puts a more festive face on the town as denizens both Irish and Irish-For-A-Day go into hardcore celebratory mode, but most of the year it's pretty grim in Butte's leftover dens of vice.

Today, after meeting my captain in the Best Western's cocktail lounge (and casino!) for drinks and conversation, I took a walk over to the mall. Butte's mall has always been a kitschy throwback that simultaneously evokes nostalgia and distaste. You'll find a number of chain stores that have long since shuttered in any prosperous city (Herberger's!?), and it has the best used book store I've found in any mall anywhere, but you'll also find a strikingly large percentage of stores that are closed or in the process of closing. This time, both the Sam Goody and the Radio Shack are on their way out the door, shut down by the WalMart down the street. I'm not too heartbroken - after all, it's just one corporate monster snuffing out two others - but it's hard to walk through a poorly lit mall with dingy 1980's decor and newly shuttered stores among bored youths and frantic mothers with gaggles of small children in tow and not feel mildly depressed.

So - am I saying Butte is a bad layover? Nah, not neccessarilly. It was pretty good this time. We had a heck of a time flying in here today - more on that tomorrow - so the captain and I spent a few hours in the lounge decompressing over good drinks and pleasant conversation, and that always makes for a nice layover. Plus, I picked up a music CD and laptop speakers on clearance sale for a grand total of $11.26! Now, if you'll excuse me, the good Irish brews have left my throat a little dry, so I'm going to quench my thirst with some good 'ole arsenic-laced Butte city water!


Hotel Coffee said...

well said sir.

Anonymous said...

But as you said in the beginning of your post, a good layover is all about attitude. I would have spent my time in Butte appreciating that which can never leave or be taken away from Butte- the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Being a fellow northwestener like yourself I am no stranger to mountains, however I always enjoy trips into the Rockies because the geologic differences in the creation of the Rockies vs. the Cascades combined with the inland positioning of the Rockies lends to them a truly unique feel. Granted the constraints of a pilot's layover might hamper this a bit but nevertheless something to think about!

Unfortunately my last trip to Butte (via the overland route on I-90) was spent cruising through at about midnight in darkness as we long-hauled it from central Nebraska to Washington state in 31hrs straight.

Sam said...

Butte's natural beauty (well, if you ignore the areas despoiled by mining) is definately its redeeming feature. I guess I tend to not appreciate that as much because we have layovers at several other gorgeous Rockies towns (Helena, Kalispell, Missoula) that are considerably more, um, "charming" than Butte. But yeah, on Butte layovers when the weather cooperates, I bring my hiking boots and hit the trails. It just happened to be pouring rain this last time :-).

Hamish said...

Sam -- a nicely-written article -- thanks! Makes me want to visit the place myself some day soon to experience it all for myself, delapidation and depressing bits included...