Blarney among the tailings

Victorian homes from Butte's glory days. Photo: Getty Images
Victorian homes from Butte's glory days. Photo: Getty Images
A former mining town fallen on hard times celebrates its Irish heritage with defiant enthusiasm, writes Gwyneth Hyndman. 

My window wipers slash through layers of snow on the glass in front of me as I lean forward and look for an exit sign. The mountains of the Continental Divide are somewhere in the whiteness around my car as it inches down the I-90 in a 10am March blizzard. Also out there, the 27m statue of the Virgin Mary that gazes down on the boom-and-bust city I am driving into. It's a city haunted by mineral riches and shuttered mansions, where the nation's wealthiest men once walked.

This is Butte, Montana - the most Irish city in the United States, per capita - and I was braving a winter weather warning to experience my first St Patrick's Day here. As a new resident of Big Sky Country, this was almost a rite of passage.

Once known as the "Richest Hill on Earth" - when the demand for copper boomed during the rush for electricity in the early 1900s, bringing thousands of immigrants west to work in the mines - Butte is now best known for its gritty homage to the Gilded Age, when "Copper Kings" William A. Clark, Marcus Daly and Augustus Heinze made their fortunes. While those riches left the city long ago when the price of copper plummeted, what remains is a heritage as diverse as the communities that formed here above miles of mining passageways.

An expansion of open pit mining in the mid 1950s consumed many of the old neighbourhoods, such as Finn Town, Chinatown, the Italian area of Meaderville, as well as Corktown and Dublin Gulch. But the city's remaining 35,000 residents have held on to their distinct histories as much as to their ties to the unionism that formed in the halls and bars here.

Butte's most prominent identity today is as the self-proclaimed "Fifth Province" of Ireland, a claim reinforced by a 2010 US Census that had 23.6% of Butte's residents claiming Irish roots. This made it the most Irish-American metropolitan city in the US, beating Boston's 19.8%. St Patrick's Day has been celebrated in Butte since 1882, but it wasn't until 2017 that March was declared Irish American Heritage Month by the commissioners of Butte-Silver Bow County. Factor in an open container law that doesn't kick in until 2am - bringing thousands of revellers to the city every March 17 - and it's a rager that the city's police force know to brace themselves for. Last year, the Montana Standard newspaper reported that parts of some streets had been fenced off after dark to contain the crowds in previous years. This was a mistake, a police chief said later, as it just made the historic district appear to be primed for a cage fight.

Last year I bundled up and walked to downtown Butte ahead of the noon St Patrick's Day Parade, where beer cans were held high in the falling snow as the Edmonton Pipe Band marched by and cowgirls tipped their hats after throwing confectionary from their horses' saddlebags.

Kilts brushed the tattooed calves of men who gathered in clusters to drink on the footpath. The Pogues blasted from bar stereos. On a street corner, an elderly couple in matching green knitted jerseys prepared to cross, hand-in-hand. Babies were swaddled in "Kiss Me I'm Irish" onesies and held by mothers wearing plastic green beads around their necks and shiny wigs the colour of wheatgrass.

Later, I elbowed my way into the Headframe Spirits tasting room and lined up for a Pot O' Gold; the distillery's High Ore vodka with lime and orange juice. Headframe takes its brand logo and name from the 14 mining entrances around Butte, also referred to as "the gallows", where miners were once lowered down to their work and ore was brought to the surface. The bar itself was rescued from the Rocky Mountain Bar in the Italian neighbourhood of Meaderville before it was lost to the mining expansion.

Cowgirls brave the weather to participate in the parade. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
Cowgirls brave the weather to participate in the parade. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
When I first came to Montana, I spent most of my time in old West ski resort towns such as Whitefish, Big Sky and Bozeman. This fitted in with my romantic notions of Montana. Butte: not so much. On the surface, the city feels bleak and forgotten; its hills scarred by greed, then left behind with the families who mined them. Houses tightly line steep streets named for US states. Faded advertisements for cigarettes and candy from Alaska are still visible on the walls of boarded up hotels as I drive past.

The distillery was the only reason I braved Butte in the three years since I moved to Montana, taking a job as an editor in a smaller boom-and-bust mining town an hour away. I'd grab a bottle of Orphan Girl, fill up on petrol and get out. I didn't know what to make of the city. Butte was formidable, difficult to navigate and had a ghost town feel when you parked in the shadow of monolith buildings that were once the heart of commerce.

A parade-goes wraps up in green to ward off the cold on Park St. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
A parade-goes wraps up in green to ward off the cold on Park St. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
But in these short visits, Butte has begun to grow on me. Every intersection has become another opportunity to stop and unpeel layers of history. In the neighbourhood of Walkerville, the streets narrow, and turn to dirt, and I'm in another era. In contrast to the opulent architecture of the city's bank buildings at the centre of Butte, this block of streets could be out of the rural Ireland that many of the original residents came from. In front yards, pieces of mining equipment are used as mail boxes, garden art or just as a lonely statement on that family's sacrifice to the wealth that once made this city hum.

All around Butte there were buildings that seemed to be pulled from a John Steinbeck short story. There's the Pekin Noodle Parlour that still has the same curtained booths where political deals were said to have been made a century ago in Butte's Chinatown. Or the Helsinki Yacht Club - the only building in the neighbourhood of Finn Town left after the expansion of the 283ha Berkeley Pit, the former open pit mine where nearly 300 million tons of copper ore was extracted between 1955 and 1982. The pit is now filled with about 270m of toxic water; hence "Yacht Club" being tagged on to the name of the bar, backed by the gaping mouth of the pit.

A year after I first experienced St Patrick's Day in Butte, I am back. I grab a meat and pastry-laden pasty - a dense Butte delicacy introduced by Welsh and Cornish miners - at Nancy's Pasty Shop, a small diner with a walk-up window, just across the road from the Berkeley Pit and where miners once punched out to get their lunch fix. I head uptown, eating as I go. In contrast to 12 months before, the weather is spring-like and most people step out into the sun with their drinks. The bright forecast has led to a front-page news story in the Montana Standard on the Butte Police Department clearing out the cells, sending 20 prisoners to jails around the state, to clear room for the anticipated trouble-makers.

St Patrick makes an appearance during the annual parade. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
St Patrick makes an appearance during the annual parade. Photo: Gwyneth Hyndman
Though so far, the crowds seem tame enough as they wait for the noon parade to start and folding chairs are set out along the blocked-off main streets in the historic district.

Following the flow of people to Park St, I spot the same elderly couple in the matching knitted jerseys who walked, hands entwined, last year, and a few of the same kilted partiers taking their positions at the outdoor tables of the M&M Bar, across the street from the Metals Sports Bar and Grill.

From here I can see the top of the eight-story Metals Bank building, designed in 1906 by Cass Gilbert, who also designed New York City's Woolworth skyscraper and the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. A short walk down the street is Hotel Finlen, also a testament to the city's era of grandeur. The original 1889 hotel structure was razed in 1923 after it was bought by James T. Finlen, who then hired the architectural firm Shanley and Baker to design a replica of the Hotel Astor in New York City, as a nine-storey French Second Empire building.

On a clear day, there is an unobstructed view of the Virgin Mary statue from Butte as I drive back towards the highway, beating other out-of-towners to an early exit after the parade, and before the parties in the bars and in the street really get going. "Our Lady of the Rockies" was a six-year project starting in the late 1970s, finished finally in 1985, by a steely group of Butte parishioners. It is now the fourth-tallest statue in the US and a testament to the grit of the residents who saw the creation through. High on the ridge above Butte, she is like a silent, somewhat startling ivory keeper, when you spot her, often camouflaged by the snowy ground at her feet and the clouds behind her outstretched hands.

She is a mountain-top beacon; almost too fitting for the most Irish city in America below her.


 If you go 

  • Getting there: Flights from main United States hubs such as Los Angeles International Airport arrive regularly at Butte’s Bert Mooney Airport.
  • Where to stay: Butte has a wide range of accommodation across the city, from budget motels to B&B guest rooms in the 34-room Copper King Mansion.
  • What to eat: Nancy’s Pasty Shop and Catering  in Pine St is one of several places to try the famous Butte pasty, located near the Berkeley Pit entrance.
  • Exploring Butte: Old Butte Historical Tours has walking tours of the historic areas as well as an underground tour beneath Butte’s sidewalks, that features speakeasies that thrived here during Prohibition. The World Museum of Mining will take guests on tours down into the Orphan Girl Mine to explore this

    exposed vein.

 - Gwyneth Hyndman is a New Zealand journalist now based in Western Montana. 

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