By the 1880s, the great American West was not a matter of cowboys, Indians, mountain men, and explorers, but in fact, a land largely urban, largely industrial, and riven with many of the same problems that assaulted the industrialized east. The mining industry, probably more than any other single industry was designed specifically to get into the West, find what resources it had, dig 'em out, leave a wreck behind, and get out and move on someplace else."
Butte, Montana, was always a mining town. It had been born during a gold rush in the 1860s and was given a second lease on life with a silver strike in the 1870s. Then, in 1881, 300 feet below the ground, miners made an even more important discovery -- the largest deposit of copper the world had ever seen.
It was just what the new electrical age required: copper for conductors, machines, wires. By the mid-1880s, Butte's mines were yielding almost 2,000 tons of silver and copper ore every day, well over a million dollars every month. Its citizens boasted they lived on the "richest hill on earth."
"Butte had a kind of collective energy that I suspect no other western town could have matched. The mines never closed, the bars never closed, certainly the red light district did not close. I've always thought of it as an eastern town, as a misplaced eastern town, a kind of downsized Pittsburgh located in the middle of The Rocky Mountains."
Most of the Butte miners were Irish, but there were also Finns and Japanese and Italians, Croatians, Mexicans and Swedes -- 38 different nationalities in all, so many that the "No Smoking" signs in the mines had to be printed in fourteen languages.
All the men were working steadily toward one goal: take as much ore as possible from the mines 4,000 feet below the surface. It was the most dangerous job in America. In the hot, airless tunnels, temperatures stayed above 90 degrees all year round. Mine shafts collapsed or caught fire. And there was the perpetual threat of silicosis, caused by inhaling dust, which tore at the miners' lungs and led thousands to die young from pneumonia and tuberculosis.
"The elevation to ground level in the middle of a Butte winter was the cause of great elation among the school children of Butte, because men being raised from a hundred degree mine would be covered with sweat, and as they reached the surface, as their sweat-drenched work clothes would strike 40-degree-below air, they would disappear in a plume of evaporation. So the school children used to gather on the hillside and watch the men raised, and it was their afterschool pleasure to watch them literally disappear in this cloud, this puff of smoke."
In approaching Butte I marvelled at the desolation of the country. There was no greenery of any kind; it had all been killed by the fumes and smoke of the piles of burning ore.
Just four trees survived within Butte itself, and all the nearby hillsides had long since been stripped of wood to fuel the smelters that roared on, all day and all night. Thick, reeking smoke hung perpetually over the city and the raw-boned mining settlements around it -- Cabbage Patch, Anaconda, and a place called Seldom Seen.
"Butte had an air pollution problem that was such that it would be literally dark at noon. The prevailing winds usually would carry the smoke away. But in dead air conditions Butte was literally obliterated. It disappeared from view."
"Much of mining that goes on in the West today is still operating under a law signed by Ulysses S. Grant called the General Mining Law of 1872, which was designed specifically to encourage mining in the West. It encouraged exploitation. It literally gave away enormous chunks of American land at almost no price. Imposed no restrictions on how the mines would be developed, required no reclamation work afterwards, no monitoring of whatever acids and other garbage might get spilled into the local watertables, and gave away, no one even knows how much, precisely, gold and silver, with no royalties paid to the government at all. The West is a fairly fragile environment. Unlike the well-forested East, the scars last longer, the damage is of a longer duration. And yet, we still continue to use the West the same way, as if what we did was impermanent. But in human terms, it is not impermanent at all; it lasts a very long time. Generations."
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