We spent two hot days in Butte as we traveled south from the Sweet Grass Hills. Butte is a town we wanted to visit more from a historical perspective than because of its beautiful scenery or recreational opportunities.
Butte’s origins are exclusively related to the mining of silver and copper. The land area that is now Butte was nothing more than a scattering of mining camps on “the hill”. Of course, once silver and copper was discovered in 1870 the boom was underway.
The town grew exponentially for a number of years until a fire in 1879 leveled the town. The town was quickly rebuilt using only stone and brick which is why so much of the Uptown Butte (downtown) area remains intact today.
All of the photos above are from the Orphan Girl mine. We toured the mine and were able to walk down (with a guide) to tunnels about 150 feet under the surface. The mine ultimately operated at 3000 feet under the surface.
The mine operated from 1875 until 1950 and produced 7.6 million ounces of silver as well as lead and zinc. In 1965 the mine was repurposed as a mining museum and opened to the public for tours. The mine is also utilized by students at the Monatana Technical University School of Mines and Engineering as a hands on laboratory for their Mining Engineering students. The campus sits adjacent to the Orphan Girl site and the school has its own entrance into the mine from within the campus.
While the Orphan Girl produced primarily silver, it was copper that drove the growth and prosperity of Butte. The introduction of electricity on a widespread basis created an insatiable demand for copper wiring. World War 1 added to the demand as military rifle ammunition used copper jackets.
Butte, unlike many other mining towns, continued to prosper well into the 20th century owing to the massive deposit of copper and the demand for copper for use in modern electronics. Over time the various copper mines were purchased and operated by the Anaconda Mining Company.
In the aftermath of all of the acquisitions, Anaconda sought to reduce expenses through the 1930s and 1940s which led inevitably to labor disputes and costly strikes. Ultimately, during the 1950s the company responded by beginning to strip mine for the copper.
All of silver and copper in and around Butte had been conducted as underground hard rock tunnel mining until 1952. The area around the mines were dotted with neighborhoods and small towns. The strip mining completely destroyed the area as people and businesses were forced to relocate. The photos above and below are of the flooded portion of the Berkely Pit.
The strip mining continued until 1982 by which time the pit was 7000 feet long, 5600 feet wide and 1600 feet deep. Two entire towns, Meaderville and McQueen as well as much of the east end of Butte were ultimately consumed by the pit.
When the mine ceased operations, the water pumps were shut down and the pit began to fill with heavily acidic water, resulting in the leaching of heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the water in the pit. The water level is currently at 900 feet.
Not surprisingly, the pit was declared a superfund site and is the largest such site in the United States. The site has been remediated and a water filtration plant is in operation to remove the metals and toxic chemicals that continue to leach from the sides of the pit.
The land adjacent to the Berkely Pit is still rich with copper – yes – strip mining for copper resumed in 1982 right next to the Berkely Pit. Let’s hope the environmental regulators have stayed on top of things with this mine.
P.S. We took the photos of the Berkely Pit from the viewing stand on top of the pit. Just three dollars per person to see the largest superfund site in America in person – yep, the pit is a tourist attraction – exit through the gift shop!
Mining is the reason for Butte and is still a major part of the local economy. The Berkley Pit will always be there as an ugly reminder of the decision to switch from tunnel mining to strip mining in order to lower labor costs. In the end, labor costs were minor in comparison to the initial cost of remediating the pit and associated ongoing costs.
Butte certainly has a colorful history as a mining town and a tough legacy as the location of the largest superfund site in America. A lesser claim to fame is that the longest continuosly running brothel in America was located in Butte, closing – you guessed it – in 1982 when the Berkely Pit shut down.
There is beautiful country and plenty of recreational opportunities all around Butte. Butte proper is not an attractive city but worth a quick visit if you have an interest in seeing and better understanding local history and the impact of large scale mining.
After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)
Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.
We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.
This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.
We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.
The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.
american prairie reserve (APR)
The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.
The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).
We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.
We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.
Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.
The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.
“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880
When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.
The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.
In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.
The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Therefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.
Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.
The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills
We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.
The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.
Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.
The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.
After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.
The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).
Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.
Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?
About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.
We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.
Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.
Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump
We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.
A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.
Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.
The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.
Thoughts on the Prairie
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.
Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.
This was our first visit to Billings and the Yellowstone Art Museum. We were fortunate that our visit coincided with an exhibition of art by New Mexico based artists. The exhibition, New Beginnings, features a diverse group of artists that settled in Taos and Sante Fe, starting in the late 19th century. The majority of the works on exhibit were painted between 1900 and 1940.
The New Beginnings exhibit featured paintings by artists that migrated from the east coast to live and work in New Mexico. A number of the featured artists were the founding members of the Taos Colony.
The opportunity to experience and paint the dramatic southwestern landscape inspired many of the transplants to try new styles, colors and techniques which gave new life to their careers as artisits.
While many of these artists are not well known, their collective work was well received in the east where most people had never personally experienced the culture or seen the landscapes of New Mexico.
We were captivated by this exhibit which contains a significant number of paintings. We have included a sample of some of our favorites. The exhibit continues at the YAM until 16 July, 2021.
Matriarchs of modernism
A second smaller exhibit currently on display at the YAM is Matriarchs of Modernism.This exhibit features the work of four Montana women artists and several of their students (men and women). The exhibit is part of the museums celebration of the centennial of women’s sufferage.
We hope you enjoyed the art work included in this post and would definitely recommend a visit to the YAM if your travels take you to Billings.
With rain in East Glacier and our need to head to Kalispel for our last night we opted to hike in West Glacier on the west slope of the Continental Divide where the weather was forecast to be dry and a good ten degrees warmer than East Glacier. We chose the Flathead Ranger Trail to give us a close up pespective of the Flathead River.
The weather was as projected and we had good last hike through burned forest area that provided a full 360 panoramic view of all the surrounding mountains including the Teakettle Mountains. The hike also provided a birdseye view of the confluence of the two forks of the Flathead River. Also, a great birding area and we saw many bluebirds along the trail above the river.
The Flathead Ranger trail is less well know so we had the trail to ourselves for the entirety of the eight mile roundtrip.
With cold temperatures and rain showers in the forecast we elected not to hike today. We took a road trip over to Browning to visit the Museum of the Plains Indians. The museum is located within the Blackfeet Tribal Indian Reservation which spans approximately 1.5 million acres. The Blackfeet Indians owned the land that now constitutes Glacier National Park until it was purchased by the federal government in 1895.
The museum has many artifacts from various Plains Indian tribes – clothing, jewelry, weapons, tools, household items and musical instruments. The displays were very informative and interesting.
We met several Blackfeet artists that were working at the museum today. A jewelry maker named Rene Bear Medicine and a young artist named Jeremy (self taught).
From Browning we looped around to East Glacier where we stopped for a late lunch at the Two Medicine Grill. We then drove back to St. Mary on MT 49 known locally as Looking Glass Hill Road. The road provides tremendous views of Two Medicine Lake and the valley below when the weather is clear. It is a curvy mountain road that is closed from November through April because of snow and frequent landslides. MT 49 is cattle country and we encountered many cattle on and along the road which along with the many hairpin turns makes it a slow but exhilarating trip.
A relaxing day and a chance to rest our tired legs.
A sunny and cool day with no wind. A perfect day for our longest hike of the trip – 10.4 miles. The Iceberg Lake trailhead is located at the very end of Many Glacier Road. From there we climbed up to the lake which sits at 6200 feet. The entire hike provides spectacular vistas of mountain peaks, glaciers and the valley to the west. We crossed numerous waterfalls along the way and were fortunate to see several Mule Deer up close on the trail as well as Big Horn Sheep grazing above the trail.
Mt Wilbur and Iceberg Peak rise 3000 feet from the lake surface forming a cirque which surrounds the lake making for a most impressive experience at the end of a long climb.
We met a lovely British couple – Tony and Hilary – at the trailhead parking lot after completing the hike. They have been touring the west for the last three weeks – starting in Seattle and driving east through Washington and Idaho before finishing their trip in Montana. We have met several retired couples on this vacation who are on extended road trips and enjoying the experience immensely. Their experiences continue to fuel our desire to be “On the Road”.
Drove to Logan Pass on the Continental Divide. Hiked from visitors center to Hidden Lake overlook, then proceeded down to the lake, took a lunch break and headed back up as the weather changed to hail and gusty winds. A grizzly bear and her two cubs were sighted by other hikers, but we were too late to catch a glimpse of them. We did, however, spot two hoary marmots. Continued down the Going to the Sun Road to St. Mary. Stopped along the way to view Jackson Glacier.
A fairly strenuous eight mile hike with a 1900 foot elevation gain. A mix of sun and clouds on the ascent with a brief hail storm thrown in for good measure. Did not see a single person for the first 90 minutes of the climb and had the lookout to ourselves before some other hikers arrived. A picnic lunch provided a much needed rest before heading back to the trail head.
Heading up to Logan Pass tomorrow to hike to Hidden Lake. After the hike we will complete the drive on The Going to the Sun Road and spend the next three nights in St Mary.
A shorter hike on the morning of day two to beat rain showers forecasted for the afternoon. The trailhead is accessed via the one lane dirt Inside Fork Road – an adventure in it’s own right!
The trail runs through an area of forest burned in the North Fork during the 2001 Moose fire and really illustrates the power of nature. Howe Lake is actually two small lakes at the terminus of the Howe Lake Trail. Also, Grizzly Bear territory!