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I Dig Butte

September 16, 2010

Butte's Berkeley Pit, with bottle rocket.

It must have long been clear (to all four of this blog’s occasional readers) that I’m becoming a bit of a geek about this whole mining-smelting history thing, but it only became completely clear to me yesterday when I drove to 40 miles to Butte to do something only complete geeks—I’m talking RV-renting, Triple-A-guidebook-reading, child-torturing geeks—do, to wit: take a guided tour, on a trolley no less, of local historical sites.

Silver Bow Creek in Butte trickling through a canyon of mine tailings.

Butte, for context, is the upper terminus of the Clark Fork River Superfund site, a historical (and contemporary) mining town (gold, silver, molybdenum, and mostly copper) and site of one of the largest hard-rock metal deposits on the planet. Butte is undercut with a warren of 10,000 miles of underground mine shafts and tunnels. It’s also the site of the Berkeley Pit, an open-pit mine that operated from the 1950s through the early 1980s, one of the largest man-made artifacts on the planet, and now the largest contaminated water body on earth. The pit is approximately a mile by half a mile across, and the water you can see in the lower left of the picture above is 1,000 feet deep. It’s there because in the early 1980s, ARCO (which had bought the mines from the Anaconda Company) stopped mining and shut off the massive underground pumps that kept the 10,000 miles of mine tunnels dry, and they flooded, filling up the pit with a toxic stew that’s effectively indistinguishable from battery acid.

That fact is responsible for one of the Berkeley Pit’s most notorious claims to fame: in 1995 a flock of migrating Canadian snow geese decided to overnight on the “lake.” The next day, workers had to fish out 242 goose corpses. The geese, one might say, got cooked.

Entrance gate to the World Museum of Mining on the Montana Tech campus in Butte.

The incident generated an enormous amount of bad press. Since then, though, local boosters have tried to make lemonade by advertising the pit as a tourist attraction. There’s a viewing station charging a couple of bucks to let you walk out on a platform with a panoramic view, and it’s impressive indeed, one of the great unnatural wonders of the world. But while tourists may pay to see an awe-inspiring relic of America’s industrial age, nobody wants their kid to put a quarter in the binocular machine just to be faced with a bunch of ducks sizzling in the broth below. And so, apparently, somebody has the job of sitting on the banks of Lake Berkeley, watching for birds, and occasionally firing bottle rockets to scare them off of landing on the water. You can see the smoky tracer of one such warning shot in the picture above.

How do you get that job? I want that job.

Orphan Girl mine headframe at the World Museum of Mining.

When the trolly tour finished, I took a little walk down part of Butte’s Silver Bow Creek, the main tributary of the Clark Fork. Here in Butte, Silver Bow has historically been a cesspool of mine waste, and stretches of it pass through artificial canyons of old mine tailings. Much of the creek has been restored to varying degrees, and that process is continuing today as the Superfund cleanup works its way downriver. There’s an incomplete trail system proposed that would follow the stream some 30 miles from Butte all the way down to Opportunity. The trolly tour guide had suggested that Silver Bow might be the original source of the phrase “shit creek,” but given the number of waterways everywhere that have been historically used to sluice crap, that claim seems a bit fanciful.

Underground mine tour at the World Museum of Mining in Butte.

After my walk I got a pork chop sandwich at John’s (highly recommended) and drove across town to the World Museum of Mining on the campus of Montana Tech. I paid my fee and spent a couple of hours wandering through a sweet mineral collection, a reimagined mining town, and the remains of the Orphan Girl mine. Much of the mine infrastructure and equipment is still there, lying around and well-labelled, beneath the old iron headframe, which lowered cages loaded with miners more than 3,000 feet underground, and lifted carts loaded with ore. The engine house is still standing, and still contains the enormous motors and mammoth spools that wound and unwound the cables. It was pretty cool, said the geek.

The Orphan Girl mine shaft, looking down on 3,000 feet filled with mine water.

But what I was really there for was the underground tour, wherein a guide from Tech’s school of mining walked a group of us 65 feet underground into a tunnel dug for student training, explaining methods and equipment along the way. The tunnel ended beneath the Orphan Girl shaft, opening on daylight at the surface 65 feet above. There was a miner cage, called a chippy, stopped at the tunnel, and beside it you could look down into the main shaft. About 40 feet down you could see water, which means that water is 3,000 feet deep down to the Orphan Girl’s lowest level.

There’s a whole subterranean city down there, under water, filled with heavy machinery and the remains of the stables that housed a thousand mules that lived underground, pulling 6-ton ore carts and going blind in the dark, where men worked in 8-hour shifts around the clock with explosives and heavy steel jackhammers.

Underground mining is not a job I would have liked. I’d much rather shoot bottle rockets at witless ducks.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lorie permalink
    October 18, 2010 2:21 pm

    Somewhere in the Beaverhead are the remains of stables where the poor, blind mules would spend their remaining days. A mule nursing home of sorts. For your next geeky tour.

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