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Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond in Butte, Montana, 1986.

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Decades of
mining and
a billion dollars’
worth of cleanup
have created
massive ground
shifts in Butte

Lost
Landscapes
BY EDWIN DOBB

PHOTOGRAPHY © 2016
BY DAVID T. HANSON

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Kelley Mine and the pre-reclamation remains of the Irish neighborhood of Dublin Gulch, photographed in 1987.

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asters of fire.

That’s how shamans were regarded in prehistoric times. But so were
smiths, the largely forgotten but similarly ordained individuals who, employing heat in
a novel way, converted rock into metal and metal into objects both useful and decorative. According to the Yakut, a once-nomadic people who have lived for thousands of
years in the region now known as Siberia, “Smiths and shamans come from the same
nest.” Both have been initiated into the occult arts. Both travel through the spirit world. Both possess
magical powers. Behold and beware, from raw stone comes a bowl, a mask, a blade. Incredible as it may
seem today, there was a time when such transformations were as miraculous as turning water into wine.
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The shift to open-pit mining, which started in the mid-1950s, altered the
currency Butte was forced to pay to stay in business and keep the U.S.
supplied with base metals. No longer was the cost measured chiefly in terms
of harm to human beings but instead in terms of damage to land and water.

All photographs in this
article are from the series
“The Richest Hill on Earth
(1985-1987)” in Wilderness to
Wasteland by David T. Hanson
(Taverner Press, 2016).

Jump to the 21st century, well into the age of disenchantment. What was once extraordinary has become routine. The
new masters of fire are international mining companies hell-bent
on extracting and smelting mineral ore on a scale and at a rate
sufficient to satisfy the ever-growing appetites of a global urbanindustrial civilization. We subordinate entire mountains of rock
to human intention, converting them into buildings, bridges, and
railroads, along with all manner of vehicles and machines, appliances and gadgets, including our so-called smart devices, made
possible by a newly exploited class of minerals called rare earths.
Every year we go to greater extremes, both technologically and
geographically, to acquire tin, lead, iron, and nickel; copper,
silver, and molybdenum. Earth first, as a provocative pro-extraction bumper sticker says, we’ll mine the other planets later.
But simply because an activity is commonplace doesn’t mean
it is wholly or even mostly under our control. Nor does it mean
the consequences are always and everywhere beneficial. As
the smiths knew well, wresting ores from the earth and subjecting them to fire is a risky endeavor, and very likely an affront
to the gods. Consider what’s at stake. What took nature millions
of years to forge we would dare re-forge in a matter of days.
Creation, the world as it is, doesn’t suit us. We can do better.
And we can do it faster.
The proper term for this attitude is hubris. And one of its
contemporary signatures is the sacrifice zone, a speculative term
first used to designate areas permanently devastated by nuclear
attack, but which seems like a good match for altered landscapes
where the damage caused by large-scale industry—steel mills,
chemical plants, oil refineries, mines—is grave and enduring.
One of America’s premier sacrifice zones is located in

A waste pile on the edge of Corktown, another Irish enclave, pictured in
1985. The waste has since been removed, and the land has been covered
in new soil and seeded.

Butte—the island of industrial frenzy that journalist Joseph
Kinsey Howard called “the black heart of Montana.” And it was
Butte’s fallen status that brought landscape photographer David
T. Hanson to town in the mid-1980s. The heroic period of copper
mining—when Butte contributed mightily to the electrification
of the country, which benefitted everyone—had recently ended.
Underground mining: Gone. The Anaconda Copper Mining
Company, one of the most powerful corporations in the world:
Gone. The once-formidable and often radical Western Federation
of Miners, which was founded in Butte: Gone. Also missing was
much of the original part of town, including several ethnic neighborhoods, plus Columbia Gardens, an immense amusement park
and playground, all of which had been destroyed to make way for
the Berkeley and East Continental pits.
Apart from their considerable aesthetic quality, the photos
Hanson took 30 years ago are fascinating because they reveal

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what Butte looked liked during the early years of the environmental era, a major turning point in the town’s evolution. Much
has changed since then. Mounds of mine waste have been
hauled away. Contaminated areas have been capped with clean
soil and re-vegetated. Former railroad beds have been converted
into public trails. Even long-idled mine yards have been refurbished and put to civic use—one as a senior citizen center,
another as an outdoor concert site, yet another as a cathedrallike museum of extractive industry.
Taken together, then, Hanson’s images document the landscape that predated remediation and reclamation—in other
words, the most recent stage of disruption, of human intervention, in a place that for a hundred years underwent continual
disruption, much of it devastating. For isn’t this more of the
same? In the eyes of the gods, is trying to restore Eden any less
arrogant than destroying it? Our purposes may change but not
our perennial discontent, nor the cultural crucible in which we
try to remake the world in our image, no matter how fractured or
contradictory or provisional it may be.

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f all the ways we disrupt natural environments,

one of the most aggressive is mining, an activity
that entails not only disfiguring the land but plundering its mineral-laced depths. Underlying the
Butte mining district is a now-flooded network of
staggering scope and complexity—some 10,000 miles of shafts
and tunnels. Miners at the Mountain Con, on North Main Street,
drilled and blasted to a mile beneath the surface, the same level
as the Pacific Ocean but 700 miles inland, in the middle of the
Rocky Mountains. They were among the thousands of men who
labored around the clock in the mines, constituting an eccentric brotherhood, in exile from the sun, from women, from the
coming and going of seasons; a brotherhood that existed for
only one purpose—to remove as much ore as possible as fast
as possible. And that enterprise was as dangerous as it was
destructive. From the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, an
average of one man died underground every week. Thousands
more were injured, permanently maimed, or sent to early graves
by silicosis. Improve upon things as they are? Maybe. But not
without paying a price.
The shift to open-pit mining, which started in the mid-1950s,
altered the currency Butte was forced to pay to stay in business
and keep the U.S. supplied with base metals. No longer was the
cost measured chiefly in terms of harm to human beings but
instead in terms of damage to land and water. The ore contained
less copper, so more of it—much more of it—had to be extracted
and milled. Instead of penetrating the earth, the Anaconda
Company now turned the earth inside out, exposing the violent
processes that had been hidden from view. And the additional

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Mountain Con Mine,
Centerville, 1985. This
area has been restored.
The mine yard is now a
park, with grass and picnic
tables, and is part of a
trail network that
spans the Hill.

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rock those processes produced had to go somewhere.
Because the original town and business district were located
atop the ore body—on the northern slope of Summit Valley,
an area locals call The Hill—mine yards and mine waste had
always intermingled with neighborhoods. Like smelling the odor
of sulfur and hearing the blast of shift whistles, a classic experience on The Hill was looking out a kitchen window and seeing
head frames—the black, derrick-like structures that lowered men
into the mines and lifted ore out of them—towering over nearby
houses. Where one worked was inseparable from where one lived,
a fact that was once a defining feature of vernacular architecture
in most American industrial towns. But the amount of material
that came out of the Berkeley Pit was so great (about 700 million
tons over the life of the mine) that a new kind of wastescape
was created—plains and plateaus of lifeless yellow overburden
and, to accommodate the water-and-rock-dust slurry flowing day
and night from a nearby mill, an immense impoundment called
the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond. The most distinctive—as
well as most fateful—characteristic of this ravaged area, which
also includes the Berkeley and East Continental pits, is that it
embraces the old part of the town along its eastern and northern
borders. The industrial shadow of black-hearted Butte.
Hubristic as it may have been, addressing the highly toxic
and visually distressing legacy of mining became necessary
to Butte’s survival after the Berkeley Pit closed in 1982 and
Anaconda’s successor, the oil giant ARCO, shut down all operations. A few years later, the smaller, younger East Continental
Pit reopened, but the mine, along with the mill, employs only
about 320 non-union workers. The Mining City could no longer
rely on its namesake industry to drive the economy. But it would
be difficult to attract new businesses and young professionals
with families to the weary, wrecked place depicted in many of
Hanson’s photos. Was it possible to overcome that handicap, to
escape the grip of the past?
At a time when Butte had every reason to despair, it came up
with a gesture that was extravagant, to say the least, as well as a
wee bit crazy. On the East Ridge, the section of the Continental
Divide forming the eastern boundary of Summit Valley, a group
of unemployed but highly skilled men who had spent most of
their adult lives working for Anaconda erected a nine-storyhigh Madonna-like statue. Gazing down at the town and mining
district from 3,500 feet up, Our Lady of the Rockies held her
arms outstretched, palms open and turned upward. She seemed
to be both blessing Butte and imploring the heavens for mercy.
“She looked around,” as former ironworker John T. Shea puts
it, “and said, ‘This town needs help.’” And, incredibly, help
arrived, though in a form that at first looked more like a curse
than a cure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Butte a Superfund site—the equivalent, in bureaucratic
terms, of a national sacrifice zone.

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The EPA rescued Butte, an irony that a surprising number
of Butticians have yet to realize or acknowledge. Established in
1980, the Superfund program provided mechanisms for cleaning up the country’s most dangerous industrial landscapes,
places that had been abandoned by their original corporate
owners, many of which no longer existed. The great American
vanishing act. In the case of Butte, however, the owner, ARCO,
was very much present and flourishing. What’s more, under
the Superfund law, the company was responsible for redressing
the whole environmental shittaree, including the Butte mining
district, the degraded stream banks and contaminated water of
the upper Clark Fork River, the metals-laden sediment behind
Milltown Dam, and much else, almost all of which was caused
by the previous owner, Anaconda. ARCO did everything it could
to avoid its inherited liability, including enlisting high-octane
lobbyists to persuade Congress to change the law, but to no avail.
So far, ARCO has spent about a billion dollars on remediation
and reclamation in the upper watershed, and more work remains.

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he results have been dramatic.

Besides the fields
of bunchgrass, walking paths and picnic areas, and
spruced-up mine yards, Silver Bow Creek, once an
industrial sewer, now so closely resembles a healthy,
free-flowing stream that cutthroat trout have made it
their home. All manner of debris, from dilapidated buildings to
abandoned equipment to slag piles, have been removed.
In the eyes of some natives, however, the transformation,
while necessary, is as much an occasion for grief as it is consolation. That may strike the River-Runs-Through-It enthusiast as
madness but it’s an attitude borne of a singularly Montanan way
of life; indeed, from an economic standpoint, a way of life that
until the late 20th century was more representative of the state
than any other. What the last best place did best was exploit
its abundant natural resources, of which mining was the most
extreme and lucrative form.
We forget this at our peril, just as forgetting any formative
stage of development is perilous. And reclamation can be a
kind of forgetfulness, of self-induced amnesia. In other words,
well-intentioned environmental remedies can also exact a toll.
Against this backdrop, Hanson’s photos assume a mournful cast. As forbidding as some of the subject matter may be,
the images nonetheless depict yet another of Butte’s many lost
landscapes. Almost as bad as erasing remnants of the past are
attempts to prettify them. A contentious example—friends and
former neighbors in Butte will disagree with this—are the red
lights that now adorn several of the surviving head frames. The
impulse is understandable, even laudable, but those iconic
structures are the industrial equivalent of grave markers.
Turning them into gaudy all-season Christmas trees violates

Lexington Mine, in Walkerville,
a Cornish neighborhood, 1987.
The surviving head frames
memorialize the work miners
did underground.

the distinctive character of one of the most distinctive places in
the world.
But that’s not the only way in which, borrowing from
Faulkner, the past isn’t past. While Butte continues to evolve—
through not only reclamation but historic preservation and,
most important, economic development, especially such visionary efforts as the three splendid festivals the community hosts
every year—a large portion of the physical legacy of industrialized mining will never be erased: the Berkeley and East
Continental pits, along with much of the intervening and
surrounding expanses of sterile waste rock. (In principle, the
tailings pond can be capped and planted. It remains to be seen
whether that will happen.) This is partly because mammoth pit
mines are permanent disfigurements; the cost of restoring them
to their original condition would dwarf the value of the metals
they yield.
But it’s also because the community considers much of the
desolate region on its border sacred ground. This is especially
true of the Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial, on
Butte’s northeastern edge, and which overlooks a wastescape
that, to the discerning eye, reveals the dilemma of large-scale,
industrialized copper mining—on the one hand, the ambition and, yes, even nobility of the work, as well as the contribution it made to the country; on the other, the hellish social and

environmental consequences. Hanson echoes that sentiment in
eloquent terms. The Butte mining district and other disturbed
sites he has photographed across the country are, as he writes,
“both arena and metaphor for the most constructive and most
destructive aspects of the American spirit.”
Butte is unusual in that, for all the qualities the arena
and metaphor share with a historical battlefield—think of
Gettysburg—it is still “alive.” Mining continues. The East Pit
grows larger every day and the earthen berm of the Yankee
Doodle Tailings Pond rises ever higher. From much of the valley
floor, where the newer part of town is located, the ridge behind
the tailings pond is no longer visible. The dominant feature of
the landscape is the industrial shadow.
That shadow is Butte’s burden. But it may also be the town’s
salvation, protecting it from those long on wealth and privilege
but short on imagination, the seasonal second-homers and itinerant recreationalists who owe allegiance to no particular place
or time. For Butte is a town where one cannot escape the consequences of our urban-industrial way of life, where the sacrificial
nature of civilization is laid bare, memory manifest as geography, for all time. Behold and beware. No matter how economically and culturally robust the community becomes—and do not
underestimate its capacity for reinvention—Butte will never be a
place for the faint of heart.

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