To learn about Butte, Montana - its people and its history - there is no better place to start than the World Museum of Mining. Located right next to the campus of Montana Tech, the museum was one of the first places my son Jake and I went on our recent visit to Butte, also known as the Richest Hill on Earth.
Butte and Silver Bow County are rich in history and much of that history revolves around the mineral wealth that came from beneath the small city's surface. Silver and gold got Butte started as a mining camp, but copper was what later made it one of the American west's greatest boom towns.
The World Museum of Mining is located on the site of an actual copper mine, the Orphan Girl, and features daily underground mine tours at depths of 65 and 100 feet. We took the 100-foot level tour led by a guide who previously worked in the mines as an electrician. Hard hats with head lamps are required on the tour and for good reason. Clearances can be low in the mine, and the hard hats are necessary to protect visitors from hitting their heads as they pass through timber framed doorways. At one point, our guide had everyone turn off their head lamps, plunging us into absolute pitch darkness.
In addition to learning about how late 19th and early 20th century mining worked, we learned from our guide about some cultural aspects of the Butte/Silverbow area. One such lesson was on the origin of the traditional Butte way of saying goodbye, which is "tap 'er light." I'm hesitant to try and retell this as I may get something wrong, but I will say it has to do with blasting in a mine shaft and "tapping" sticks of dynamite into holes drilled in the wall. You probably get the idea; I know if I had to do that I'd tap 'er pretty light too.
Along with the mine tour and historical and mineral displays, the mining museum features a replica 1890's mining town called Hell Roarin' Gulch. This is fun to tour and provides visitors with some great photo ops, but on the outskirts of the little town is what I found most meaningful at the World Museum of Mining.
The Memorial Garden is home to a wall listing the names of 2,500 people killed in the area's mining industry from 1865-present. The plaque pictured below sums up what hard rock mining has meant to the world and to this country and reading it reminded me that many American heroes have been just every day working people, going to a job every day and trying to feed their families.
I found on the wall three fallen miners who shared my last name, and I looked them up when I visited the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. I couldn't find evidence that I'm descended from any of these men, but I did learn quite a bit about my family's history in Southwest Montana at the archives. I've written a little about that on my other blog and will provide more information on the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives in my next post here.