Editor’s note: This is the eight and final post in our theme for January 2022, Urban Environmentalism. Additional entries can be seen at the end of this article.
By Gwendolyn Lockman
Butte, Montana, is currently known for its biggest eyesore and toxic waste site: the Berkeley Pit. It is part of one of the largest of such sites in the United States, known as “Superfunds” on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List.
The Berkeley Pit is the mascot of Superfund in Butte. A toxic lake a mile wide and a half-mile deep, it is an unignorable reminder that mining built the city—but also destroyed it. The Pit swallowed up entire neighborhoods: Meaderville, parts of Centerville, and the beloved Columbia Gardens. It is only one small corner of the 26-mile-long Superfund site that stretches from I-15 in Butte to Warm Springs, Montana. And it is part of a longer chain of Superfund sites stretching 140 miles from Butte to Missoula, Montana, all resulting from mining activity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
But, for the people of Butte the city means much more than its waste. Many residents’ fondest memories of the city are from Columbia Gardens, a pleasure garden lost in 1973 to the whims of the mining industry, then fire, and, finally, the Pit.
The story is simple at first glance: a copper king, William Andrews Clark, gave the city its crown jewel, and a copper company, Anaconda, took it away. In truth, the Columbia Gardens and the Berkeley Pit are simply the most obvious examples of how people have reimagined the purpose of the city of Butte, the land, and the environment over the last 150 years.
In 1876 a miner named Walter William Adams made a claim east of Butte in Horse Canyon, which he named “Columbia.” As was the case with many small mining operations in the area during the 1870s, Adams could not make a living off of his claim because the copper’s purity was low. It would require large scale mining, and huge investments of both capital and manpower, to make copper mining in Butte viable.
When mining proved unprofitable, Adams began hosting outings on his property. The first advertisement for Columbia Gardens appeared on June 29, 1884. Adams advertised that his venue was “the most attractive pleasure resort in the environs of Butte,” where food and drink was available, and where “pleasure seekers” could enjoy a “pleasant drive and the cooling shades of the Garden.” It is not clear when precisely Adams added “Gardens” to the name of his land, but the name remained the same for the entire life of the entertainment grounds.
Adams’s operation became a peripheral space for the people of the infant city to entertain themselves on outings and picnics, or at races or performances, while bars, brothels, and theaters provided entertainment in the central business district. But, by the late 1890s it had become a problem; drunkenness and violence were common at the resort.
In 1897 the Butte Electric Railway Company pulled up the streetcar tracks that went to Columbia Gardens. William Andrews Clark, a “copper king” of Butte, owned the Butte Electric Railway Company, which provided the only transit line to the Gardens. Butte Electric’s manager, Jesse Wharton, endured the brunt of the press about the change in railway infrastructure, when he suggested that Columbia Gardens attracted poorly behaved people, and that cutting off their transportation to the grounds was the only way to improve the problems they caused for the community.
Columbia Gardens remained closed through the 1898 season. A story appeared in the Anaconda Standard in July, which lamented that there was “very little to be had in Butte in the way of recreation for the children. There is not a park in the city or in its outskirts. There is not a fountain or a tree or a flower garden. Since the Columbia Gardens closed there has been no pleasant resort for the little ones that could be reached without taking an entire day.”
These complaints reveal much about Butte: it lacked green space; there were enough children that certain people thought there ought to be green space; and those who could exercise influence in matters of city beautification used public conceptions of childhood and play to justify calls for maintaining public space. Additional accounts remarked upon children playing on dirt roads or slag heaps and of the dangers of recreation in a mining town, where explosives, toxic materials, and smoky air were abundant.
By the end of July, as the mayor attempted to reopen the Gardens, the City Council proposed forcing the streetcar company’s hand. City officials considered enlisting help from the county commissioners if they could not compel the streetcar company to reconstruct the Columbia Gardens line. In this example, we see government officials’ early concerns about public health and safety. Part of the crusade to reopen the gardens was to provide a suburban resort for “recreation and relief from the fumes of sulphur smoke, in which our city is almost continuously enveloped, thereby making the necessity for some such place absolutely indispensable to the community.”
The special committee on Columbia Gardens reached an impasse, since the city did not have the funds to purchase the Gardens. Meanwhile, the committee and streetcar company concluded that the park’s private ownership could not guarantee the Gardens would appeal to the entire public—and, worse still, that it might continue to be a playground of the so-called “sporting class.” This kind of behavior was intolerable to family audiences, implied the Gardens’ manager, Wharton.
In August 1898 the committee decided to raise funds through subscribers who would then gift the park to the city. The purchase required $15,000 in fundraising. The city promised to furnish police protection to prevent undesirable behavior at the Gardens and prevent alcohol sales. Clearly the Gardens had fallen into disrepair, because the Anaconda Standard reported that the city would “bear all expense of running [the gardens] and also of repairing and restoring them to the beauty which they possessed a few years ago.”
But this campaign to finance the public vision of the Gardens failed, too. Instead, in 1899, Clark, one of Butte’s three wealthiest and most influential copper “kings,” bought the failed mine turned adult playground. He was in the midst of a national scandal over his election to the United States Senate in 1898, which meant that rescuing Columbia Gardens was good publicity and a welcome distraction from his unseemly ejection from elected office (and his attempted usurpation of the Governor of Montana’s authority over the assignment of his successor).
Clark poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into creating a world-class pleasure resort for the city of Butte, open to the public from springtime until Labor Day. The park operated until 1973, even after changing owners in the 1920s, when Clark died and his family sold his Montana holdings to Clark’s long-time competitor, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.
This was not the Anaconda Company’s first foray into Butte’s parklands, nor its last. In 1916, the Anaconda Company offered to loan to the City Council the surface lot of its mining claims for use as public parks. In 1919 this offer was renewed upon the city’s attempts to expand the parks system, with Anaconda agreeing “to allow the city the use for an indefinite period of any of (Anaconda’s) vacant property within the city limits that can be used for park purposes.”
What is perhaps most ironic about the Anaconda Company, as well as Clark, seeking involvement in city improvements for public parks is that these entrepreneurial powers were first responsible for destroying the environment of Southwestern Montana. Parks are a desirable urban amenity, which makes the fact that a highly-toxic business bought its way into the corporate welfare of public works both appropriate, because they were countering their own pollution, but also dissonant, because it meant copper companies staked a claim in making Butte a desirable place to live while destroying the environment and imperiling the well-being of the city’s residents. While Americans might now see the state of Montana as a bastion of natural beauty, those who profited off of Montana in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries permanently altered the landscape and the ecology of the area through enormously lucrative extractive resource operations. There is irrefutable evidence of the damage—see the Berkeley Pit.
Butte is deeply tied to its past. Its people wear its mining history, its rough reputation, and its anti-corporate union spirit with pride—even as state politics have shifted sharply right. As residents imagine a future where Superfund status is a thing of the past (even if the Pit is impossible to get rid of), the federal, state, and local officials, as well as the inheritors of the Anaconda Company, British Petroleum by way of Atlantic Richfield Company, are reviving a past solution. They are building more parks.
In 2012, the reclaimed site at the Mountain Con Mine Yard opened as Foreman Park. The large green space includes trails, picnic tables, and open play areas that overlook the city. The Mountain Con Mine gallows frame still stands, and reads in large print “Mile High” and “Mile Deep,” referencing the elevation of the city and the depth of the Mountain Con Mine. Foreman Park is one reclaimed recreation area along Montana’s Copperway, a trail system connecting the several mine yards and railroads of Butte in an effort to combine public works, recreation, mining reclamation, and historic preservation. It is also evidence of the concerns in Butte about its mining character, its public amenities, and its environmental health, all of which date to at least the 1890s when the fate of Columbia Gardens hung in the balance.
While some community members applaud the creation of green space, other residents feel that park construction is a distraction from Butte’s needs for economic redevelopment. The Environmental Protection Agency announced Butte’s Superfund cleanup plan in March 2020, after decades of negotiations between the federal government, the state, and Atlantic Richfield. The amended cleanup plan relaxes state environmental quality standards so that cleanup need only fulfill federal standards, which are less extensive than state standards issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Public comment included several statements by Butte residents concerned that cleanup still fails to do enough for the community.
Butte may soon lose its Superfund status, depending on how cleanup goes following the EPA’s 2020 announcement and the circumstances which might de-list Butte as a Superfund. But the Berkeley Pit will still be there. Can the city again do what William Andrews Clark once did with Columbia Gardens: craft an emerald gem brilliant enough to live with the price of the Richest Hill on Earth? Time will tell if the scars of a costly mining past and a desire to replenish the natural environment can coexist in Butte.
Urban Environmentalism (January 2022)
- Driving into Environmental Law: Thurgood Marshall, Highway Construction, and the Overton Park Case (includes bibliography/reading list)
- Opposing Urban Energy Landscapes: Petitions and Letters against Coal Yards, Wood Yards, and Gas Stations in Montréal (1940s-1960s)
- Writing from Away: An Environmental Historian’s Dilemma
- The Racialized History of Philadelphia’s Toxic Schools
- Choosing Perpetual Management: Urban Runoff and the Origins of Its Mitigation
- “The Abyss”: Erosion and Inequality in the Urbanization of Amazonia
Gwendolyn Lockman is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin studying labor, leisure, and urban development in the U.S. West. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post and Not Even Past.
Featured image (at top): “Panoramic view of Butte, Montana, 1904: population 60,000, altitude near gov. bldg. 6,000 feet, values taken out of Butte mines over 600 million dollars, the largest mining camp on earth, a model city with all modern institutions and conveniences” (1904) H. Wellge, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, “Record of Decision Amendment for the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Site, Butte and Walkerville, Montana,” Feb. 13, 2020, 18, https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.ars&id=0800416&doc=Y&colid=64614®ion=08&type=AR.
 “Columbia Garden,” Butte Daily Miner, June 29, 1884.
 “A Charge of Perjury,” Anaconda Standard, Mar. 8, 1893. “Testimony for Shafer,” Anaconda Standard, Nov. 12, 1897. “Arrested for Horse Stealing,” Anaconda Standard, Sept. 19, 1898. “Butte’s Grim List of Murders Not Avenged,” Anaconda Standard, Dec. 18, 1898.
 “Pulled Up Its Tracks,” Anaconda Standard, July 20, 1898.
 “Topics of the Town,” Anaconda Standard, July 11, 1898.
 “Pulled Up Its Tracks,” Anaconda Standard, July 20, 1898.
 “Pulled Up Its Tracks,” Anaconda Standard, July 20, 1898.
 “Will Buy the Gardens,” Anaconda Standard, Aug. 14, 1898.
 “Purchased the Gardens,” Daily Inter Mountain, Mar. 29, 1899.
 Report of Playgrounds Committee, May 24, 1916, Butte City Council. RG2.L: Parks and Playgrounds Committee, Butte City Council, GR.CC.BC.008.12, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.
 Report of the Playgrounds Committee, May 21, 1919, Butte City Council. RG2.L: Parks and Playgrounds Committee, Butte City Council, GR.CC.BC.008.12, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Building on Mining History: Cleanup, Reuse and Community Resilience at the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund Site in Butte, Montana,” Report. https://semspub.epa.gov/work/08/1570747.pdf.
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Building on Mining History,” 42.
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, “Record of Decision Amendment for the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Site, Butte and Walkerville, Montana,” section 4.0 – Description of the Fundamental Change to the Remedy, 16.