I just came back from an enlightening trip to Butte, Montana, ground zero for turn-of-the-century copper extraction, just as Thomas Edison discovered electricity and the USA wired the entire country to go from candles to light bulbs. Millions of miles of copper wire came from ore extracted in Butte. As a result, tons of extremely toxic mining waste polluted the area’s water and fouled the landscape, killing off thousands of trees.
Butte gets rich, then goes bust
Butte got rich and richer, then went bust. One hundred-plus years of mining left 10,000 miles (not a typo) of mines beneath the city. At one point, more than 100,000 souls called it home, many Irish immigrants; mining shifts worked around the clock, and Charlie Chaplin complained he’d “never worked that hard in his life” because of having to play to multiple shifts of miners as they got off their shifts. Today, the population has decreased to around 34,000, up 4,000 in the last decade.
Better times ahead
Butte is experiencing a bit of a Renaissance, with a freshly minted film festival, good spots to stay and to eat, close airport access to the Big Hole, one of America’s premier freestone rivers, fly rods designed by women, for women, and a fine local bourbon.
As I fly fished my way around the area, the LA was on my mind. I caught cutthroat trout in Silverbow Creek, where wading would have been dangerous just a few decades ago.
Environmental Protection Agency officials declared it a Superfund cleanup site in 1983.
So, for inspiration about what our river could become as it loses its concrete straitjacket, check out this video. Next carp you catch, squint your eyes and see what it might become.
See you on the river, Jim Burns