“There was always a threat that they were gonna put you out of work if you didn’t do their politics. My father always told me, ‘Do your work for ’em, but don’t trust ’em.’”
—Kevin Shannon, former railroad switchman
As Thomas Edison prepared to throw the switch that would signal the dawn of the electric age, an epic story was unfolding in the copper-rich mountains of Montana. BUTTE, AMERICA chronicles the rise and fall of a small mining town with a larger-than-life spirit—where fortunes were made and lost, and where community was precious, but life was cheap.
In the late 1800s, Butte, Montana, was one of dozens of frontier mining towns that sprang up nationwide. The discovery of copper ore in Butte’s mines coincided with the push to electrify America. Copper, prized for its conductivity, was needed in vast quantities—immediately.
Overnight, Butte became “the Richest Hill on Earth,” the most lucrative copper mining region in the world. Miners from Ireland and England flocked to Butte. Mines like the Berkeley, the Saint Lawrence, the Moonlight and the Neversweat employed thousands—but they needed more.
Known as the “Pittsburgh of the West,” Butte’s population swelled to 90,000, morphing into a vibrant, gritty, urban oasis perched on jagged hillsides. Miners from Scandanavia, Eastern Europe and the Phillipines established neighborhoods—Finntown, Parrot Flats, McQueen, Meaderville—each with its own churches, mom-and-pop stores and schools. Rules in the mines were posted in 16 languages; above ground, the largest red light district in the West flourished.
A union protected wages, but miners still worked in perilous conditions, knowing each day could be their last. They forged strong bonds that reached across cultural and ethnic lines, a camaraderie born of shared danger and hard-won comforts. On Sundays, when the church bells pealed for that week’s mineshaft victims, all of Butte mourned as one.
In 1914, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company succeeded in turning Butte into a one-company town. Suddenly, “the Company” called all the shots, from wages and hours to what were deemed safe conditions.
Then Butte became home to the worst hard rock mining disaster in U.S. history—the 1917 Granite Mountain fire took the lives of 168 men. Battles mounted over working conditions, some of the most violent labor confrontations the country had seen. Meanwhile, the mining company was laying waste to the local environment—the now-flooded Berkeley Pit is part of the largest Superfund site in America.
Their lives and livelihood subject to the wills of powerful and anonymous forces, Butte’s patchwork of working-class neighborhoods melded into one—a tough, vital and united community forged in a copper crucible. BUTTE, AMERICA is the story of these individuals—iron workers, engineers, teachers, priests, miners and their families—and a testament to the fortitude and indomitable spirit that built America.
Through home movies, rare archival footage, period stills, vintage political cartoons and haunting family photographs, BUTTE, AMERICA paints a vivid picture of the trials and joys experienced by American laborers at a critical time in U.S. history. As more countries pursue an urban lifestyle—raising profound questions about work, community, industrialization, global interdependence and the use of natural resources—the story of Butte becomes a story for the world.
Filmmaker Pamela Roberts provided an update in August 2009 on what some of the people featured in BUTTE, AMERICA have been doing since filming ended.
Former miner, unofficial Butte historian and raconteur John T. Shea continues to give tours to school children and the public who come to see Butte and learn about mining.
Miner’s daughter Marie Cassidy continues as the matriarch of her large Irish family. She regularly goes to Mass, hosts family gatherings and attends the inevitable parade of funerals and wakes.
Kevin Shannon continues on as Butte's elder Irish statesman, singing and reciting poems whenever and wherever he can.
Archie Green, folklorist and labor historian, passed away in June 2009.
Get the DVD >>