Leaving Bozeman we headed north to a small town (Basin) about thirty miles south of Helena for a ten day stay.
One day we drove south to the town of Butte, Montana, pop 5,700. Butte was once known as the “richest hill on earth” because of the mineral wealth that made hundreds of men wealthy and gave jobs to thousands and thousands of immigrants. While gold and silver brought the first wealth to the area, it was copper that helped it earn its nickname. It produced more than 20 billion pounds of copper, more than any other in the United States. Due to the demand for copper during the industrial revolution, Butte had electricity before NYC and other major cities. At the turn of the century it was the richest and largest city in the northwest. By 1955 most of the high grade copper was gone so they turned to extracting ore, with 48 billion dollars worth of ore extracted. As of 2017, Butte has the largest population of Irish Americans per capita of any city in the United States.
Just outside of Butte we stopped at an overlook to get a geocache and noticed “Our Lady of the Rockies”, a 90 foot high statue of the Virgin Mary which sits on the Continental Divide and overlooks the town. It is a nondenominational tribute to motherhood that took six years to build and was airlifted into place in 1985. It is the third tallest statue in the United States.
Our main reason for coming to Butte was to hike on the Milwaukee Road Rail-Trail, a former railroad for the former Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad which was converted to a walking and biking trail. This section of the railroad was one of the first in the country to be electrified, with Thomas Edison coming out to Butte to ride the railroad.
The trail includes two tunnels and a trestle and is 9.5 miles round trip. We made it to the two tunnels and then walked back for a total of five miles. We were tired!
Another day we drove north from our campground to Helena, the capital of Montana, pop 28,000. If you follow our blogs you know that visiting and touring capitol buildings is always on our list of things to do. Montana became a state and Helena, became the capital in 1889.
In 1864 four tired and discouraged prospectors looking for gold stumbled down a gulch and decided to take one last chance to strike gold. On their last chance they hit gold and a town flourished. The area became known as “Last Chance Gulch”. Today that area is Helena’s main street. The gold rush lasted long enough for 3.6 billion dollars (in today’s dollars) of gold to be extracted from Last Chance Gulch over two decades, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the United States by the late 19th century. This wealth is evident by the grand Victorian mansions we saw today. By 1888 about fifty millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world. Today the majority of people in Helena are Irish and Catholic. It is the fifth least populous state capital in the United States and the sixth most populous city in Montana. By the way, in the late 1970s when repairs were being made to a bank, a vein of gold was found under the bank’s foundation. Actor Gary Cooper, actress Myrna Loy and fashion designer Liz Claiborne are from Helena.
After the train tour we did a self guided tour of the capitol building. The guided tours were canceled because of the pandemic and the capitol building was very quiet. Even the security desk was empty.
This painting represents the Lewis and Clark Expedition in July 1805 arrival at the Three Forks (headwaters of the Missouri River). Sacagawea’s recognition of her people’s hunting grounds from which she had been abducted five years earlier. Clark (at left) and Lewis flank Sacagawea; to the right is her husband, interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau. At the far left are explorer John Colter and Clark’s African American slave, York.
On September 8, 1883, at Gold Creek (approximately half way between Helena and Missoula). Former president Ulysses S. Grant wields the sledgehammer that he will use to drive the last spike for Northern Pacific Railroad.
Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973) became the first woman to serve in the United States Congress in 1916.
Next up: Great Falls, Montana