Butte and Surroundings

Written in


July 11, 2023: The Richest Hill 

After a day in Missoula, I hopped in my rental minivan and headed east. The road passed through a narrow canyon. 

My first destination was the town Deer Lodge 1 hour 15 minutes into the drive. Despite being a tiny town of just 2,900, there is a lot to see here. To the north of town is the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. This property, run by the National Park Service, is a historic cattle ranch founded in the 1850´s. The working ranch is meant to be a showpiece of the frontier cattle era and the real cowboy lifestyle. 

The ranch was founded by Canadian immigrant Johnny Grant. He built an enormous cattle herd by trading with emigrants on the Oregon Trail. Pioneers could exchange two of their tired cattle for one of his well-rested cattle. Grant would then feed the newly purchased cattle and get them back to full strength. At the time, he would use the lodge as a base but would let his cattle roam. 

In 1857, Grant sold the ranch to Conrad Kohrs, a German immigrant, and headed back to Canada. Kohrs managed to grow the herd to 50,000 head, however he lost 60% of them during the terrible winter of 1886-1887 where it stayed -30 for weeks on end. While many cattle ranchers declared bankruptcy, Kohrs managed to survive from a loan from his banker. Afterwards, he strengthened his stock and fenced in his land. He also vertically integrated his business by starting a series of butcher shops to sell meat to pioneer mining towns. 

The ranch stayed in the Kohrs family until 1972 at which point there were no descendants who wanted to be in the business. Warren Hereford, the great grandson of Conrad Kohrs, sold the remainder of the ranch to the National Park Service. While the Grant-Kohrs Ranch is not the largest ranch, it is unique because all the financial records since its inception have been preserved.

The highlight of the ranch visit was touring the main house, which is richly decorated with European art purchased by Conrad Kohrs. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside. Outside, the stables, a blacksmith shop and the bunkhouse were all open. A few historic reenactors were on the site to educate the public. 

The ranch is still in operation. Park rangers raise cattle and sell them on the wholesale market for meat. 

In Deer Lodge itself is the strangest combination of old state prison and a car museum. One $15 ticket gives you access to them both. I started with the prison. 

The prison was created in 1871 as the main prison for the territory of Montana. It remained Montana´s main prison until 1979 when the new Montana State Prison opened 3.5 miles to the west. 

The highlight was walking through the 1912 main cell block building which includes the shower area, mess hall and chapel. 

The women’s´ cell block appears to have been untouched since the prison closed, with questionable flooring and falling walls. 

The most notable event to occur at the prison was the 1959 riot where prisoners took control of the jail for 36 hours. 

Across the visitor´s center from the prison entrance is the Montana Auto Museum, considered one of the top 10 auto museums in the US. I am no car expert, but still was blown away by the collection which contains over 200 cars from all eras. 

While there were a few more historic sites in Deer Lodge, I had to keep moving and drove 20 minutes into Butte, my final stop for the day. Butte is Montana´s 5th largest city and is known as the Richest Hill on Earth due to its strong mining history. More than $48 billion of ore has been mined in the city limits. 14 mining headframes still remain. 

The main part of the town (known as Uptown) has the largest number of structures of any historic district in the entire US. It feels like a gigantic Western town. 

Mining brought in people from all over the world. The largest group of miners came from Ireland. Even today, Butte has one of the most raucous St. Patrick´s Day parties in the country. There was also a significant Chinese population. The oldest Chinese restaurant in the US is not in San Francisco or New York, but rather Butte, Montana. The town has a significant number of very old restaurants and businesses. 

While many of the buildings are abandoned, the “bones” of the buildings are still strong. I can imagine that with some investment, Butte can become a real tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

To the west of town, just past Montana Tech, is the World Museum of Mining. While the museum has an above-ground fake mining town, the real reason you go is for the underground guided group tour of the Orphan Girl mine below the museum. The tour lasts 90 minutes and typically sells out in advance. As luck would have it, there was a single space left for the 2:00 tour, so I got to go! 

The tour started with a walk through of the aboveground parts of the museum where we learned about how the mine operates and some of the mining-adjacent jobs such as running the power station. 

Then, we donned our hard hats and headed into the mine. While the tour only went to the 100-foot level, the mine goes 2,700 feet down! While our guide was not a former miner, he was extremely knowledgeable and was able to leverage his experience in combat in Afghanistan into the tour. It goes without saying that mining was an exceedingly difficult and dangerous job. More than 2,500 men lost their lives mining in Butte. 

After the tour, I headed to the Berkeley Pit on the east side of town. The Berkeley Pit is an enormous lake that is the remnant of an open pit mine that closed in 1982 and is one of the largest Superfund sites. The pit is 1800 feet deep of which 900 feet is filled with heavily acidic and metallic water that has the same pH as Coca-Cola. While it looks pretty, the pit is apparently lined with the carcasses of thousands of birds who came to the lake to drink the water, died, and then dissolved. The pit is owned by the mining company Atlantic Richfield Company. While extremely toxic, the pit is also extremely impressive. 

For dinner, I visited Joe´s Pasty Shop, which serves a Butte specialty food called a pasty. Pasties are a meat pie that originated in Cornwall, England but brought over by miners who liked them because they were easy to transport and nutritious.

Since I only had one pasty, I was still hungry and headed over to the Bonanza Freeze for a milkshake. There, I met a Butte native who lives in San Diego and was very impressed that I came to Butte. He said that the town is overlooked by tourists and the ones that do come tend to visit the more high-end restaurants. Despite the small size of the town, Butte has a great dining scene, and I would have loved to spend another day or two just to eat. 

I then drove to my Airbnb in the outskirts of town, and it had a mini horse on the property! An amazing end to an amazing day. 

July 12, 2023: Big Hole

My flight back home from Missoula left at 15:00 so I had time to explore. I had one National Park Service Site left to visit: Big Hole National Battlefield. It is in Wisdom, 90 minutes southwest of Butte and sort-of-kind-of on the way back to Missoula. 

Due to my limited time, I arrived at the battlefield at 8:00. The visitor center did not open until 9:00, but I was able to walk the battlefield trail without context. At 9:00, I went into the visitor center to obtain my NPS passport stamp and watch the park film about the tragedy that occurred here.

In the late 1800´s, white pioneers came to settle the lands of the west. Unfortunately, for them, there were already indigenous people living here. That did not stop the US government from forcing the tribes them to sign treaties giving away their land. One of these tribes is the Nez Perce which historically lived near the triple border of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. 

The Nez Perce were not a single organization but rather a collection of related tribes, each with their own chief. In 1877, some of the Nez Perce made a treaty with the US Government to give up 90% of their land and live on a reservation – a direct violation of an earlier 1855 treaty. However, 750 individuals including the famous Chief Joseph did not sign the treaty and decided to flee their lands to seek refuge from the Crow people in Montana. In Montana, they hoped to live in peace with the Crow and maybe negotiate better terms with the US government. The US did not want this to happen and pursued the Nez Perce with 2,000 soldiers with the goal of forcing them into submission.

The Battle of Big Hole occurred immediately after the Nez Perce crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and officially entered the land of the Crow. They thought they were safe and free permanently from war because they had left their lands. 

However, during the morning of August 9, 1877, US troops discovered the Nez Perce encampment and attacked at dawn. They set fire to the teepees burning women and children alive before retreating to the nearby woods where they prepared for a counterattack. The Nez Perce counterattack came the next day during which the surviving members of the tribe fled the valley to the south. 

In total 29 American soldiers and about 90 Nez Perce died. Of the Nez Perce casualties, approximately 30 were soldiers while 60 were women and children. 

After the battle, the Crow refused to help the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce then realized their only hope for salvation would be to reach Canada. This “flight of the Nez Perce” lasted 1,170 miles. Just 40 miles from Canadian border, the US Army would finally achieve victory at the Battle of Bear Paw. While some of the Nez Perce warriors secretly fled to Canada, the leader of the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph surrendered with the famous words “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” 

While the US government was able to declare victory, the public opinion then (and even more so now) is that the US committed a terrible evil and that the Nez Perce fought with dignity. While the museum takes the contemporary view of the battle, the original unapologetic memorial built by the US Army still stands. 

I then drove the 2 hours back to Missoula where I got lunch and caught my flight back to Los Angeles. 

Final Thoughts:

Butte is one of the most interesting towns in the West. It has so much history and the town is so well preserved. I honestly believe that it is worthy of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site and could become a major tourist destination with some more investment. 

Deer Lodge was a perfect half-day spot as well. The prison, car museum and ranch were all top rate attractions. 

Big Hole Battlefield, while extremely sad, was also a worthy stop. The National Park Service does a good job at explaining the tragedy from multiple points of view. The region surrounding the battlefield also seems like a beautiful place to get off the grid. 

In short, Butte and the surrounding areas are full of attractions and worthy of your visit. 


4 responses to “Butte and Surroundings”

  1. cowpattymt Avatar

    Now you were in my corner of the world. Glad you were around. I’m over the mountains from the Big Hole Valley to the North.

    1. cowpattymt Avatar

      So nice of you to visit Montana

      1. brycewcaster Avatar

        It was so beautiful! Would love to come back.

      2. cowpattymt Avatar

        We’re always open.

Leave a Reply

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: