The topography of Butte's mining landscape is monumental. Its silence moves, haunts, encourages, angers, frightens and inspires. Butte affects you. This place, where mountains have been carved away, has been reshaped by human activity. Butte, Montana is an extraordinary example of our dependence and resulting relationship with the land.
The copper found beneath Butte's Hill significantly contributed to the development of our country's communications and electrical systems. It supplied 1/3 of the copper used in the United States and 1/6 of the copper supply to the world. Over 25 billion dollars in minerals have been extracted from a four square mile area inside Butte. It is estimated that there are still 4 billion dollars of ore left beneath the 'Richest Hill on Earth." Individually, we all play a role in this extraction. Minerals and metals are in the cars we drive, the computers we use, the ovens that we cook with, the stairs we climb, the bikes we ride, that lamps that light our homes, the pipes that give us indoor plumbing-doorknobs, ink pens, tables, air conditioners, heating ducts, photographs- whether we approve of the current extraction processes or not, we contribute to it by our use of its materials in our products. Accepting this, perhaps, can encourage us to take another look at this superfund site.
Walking through this transformation of earth fascinates me. Roaming through mine yards and hoist houses, through winding corridors where the hills to the left and right of me have been pushed there by man-these places arouse my senses. Often, I will sit on a bench, beneath a headframe or on the edge of the Berkeley Pit for hours at a time. I spend entire days in the same location watching the light change over its landscape. Hiking through this minescape involves routine collecting of soil samples and my pockets are often full of found shards of glass that I later use as lenses for my cameras. Some days I am fearful of Butte's mysteries and hide in the shadows of this land. Exploring this landscape enables me to look beyond the troubled nature of this place and experience a transcendent presence that I have come to know as Butte.
"It's a big bathtub. Somebody left the tap on and went to the store."
The Berkeley Pit, known to many of us as either Lake Berkeley or The Pit, is so deep it could completely submerge an 80 story skyscraper. It is the most toxic body of water of its size in the country. At a mile and a half long, it is no surprise that it was alluring to a flock of snow geese in the midst of their annual migration in 1995 and again in ........ Arco, who owned the Pit at the time of the 1995 migration recovered 342 of these dead geese. They were covered with grotesque burns and sores. The Pit contains high levels of copper, cadmium, zinc, nickel, lead and arsenic. It has a ph level of 2.5 which is comparable to coca cola or battery acid. The water inflow into the Pit from the old mine tunnels are the surrounding bedrock is approximately 5,000 gallons per minute or 7.2 million gallons per day. The aquifer that supplies the Pit has approximately 57 billion gallons of metal laden water. Butte, Montana also sits on a continental fault in an active seismic region. There are some speculations that an average earthquake could create an acidic tidal wave large enough to destroy the entire valley.
For Butte, The Berkeley Pit is its most popular tourism site. While looking out onto this vast body of water, it is thought provoking to remember that the entire uptown business district of Butte, which at the turn of the 20th century served a local population of over 100,000 people, was slated for demolition so that the access to copper could be expanded. Two historic neighborhoods were lost to this open pit mining expansion. Butte is considered to be an eyesore in much of the Big Sky Country, but to the locals it is still 'The Richest Hill on Earth.'
Butte is magical and authentically raw to me. It is the place where my heart found its home. I went there in search of Evel Knievel one day back in 1996. What I found was a city lost in time. That afternoon on my search for Evel (who I met years later in the Cavalier Lounge in Butte), I found myself sitting on a park bench on Broadway Street. I looked up around me to what seemed like a completely abandoned place... like the lost City of Atlantis. It summoned me a year later as I woke up from a deep sleep. I saved enough money in a month to move there and I continued to live, explore and photograph Butte for the next decade. I met some of the most kind, honest and open people of my life. They helped me in ways I can't stop recounting. Though I had been a photographer for awhile, Butte taught me how to see. I photographed inside 47 of the old buildings and driving by them still makes me cry from some depth I have yet to encounter again. Butte is amazing. Rough around the edges and challenged due to some who abuse it, but Butte will always be profoundly endearing to me.