Independent Lens: Butte, America

“When you were drilling and you got ready to fill the hole with dynamite, and shoved it in with a loading stick, you tapped her light. So’s you didn’t hit it too hard and it went off, and blow your head off.” Remembering what it was like in the copper mines, John T. Shea is matter of fact. “I never ever said goodbye in the morning going to work. I’d say, ‘See ya, so long, tap her light.'” He was lucky to survive, he knows. Too many of his friends and colleagues were killed in accidents. And yet they went to work each morning, like their fathers and grandfathers went to work, hoping for the best.

Shea’s story is an apt introduction to Butte, America. Pamela Roberts’ documentary — premiering this week are part of PBS’ Independent Lens — traces the history of copper mining in Butte, with a focus on the evolution of American labor and production. Right around the same time as copper was discovered in Butte during the 1880s, came the dawn of the “electrical age.” An influx of immigrant workers and their families created a kind of boom: historian David Emmons describes the fast-growing city as “a densely urban, intensely industrial place, sort of like a smaller Pittsburgh, set in the middle of the mountains and the prairies of Montana.” Emmons notes the difference that early money made, “The typical Montanan wore cowboy boots, Levis, cowboy hats. Butte wore Oxfords, gabardines, fedoras.” Narrator Gabriel Byrne adds that the formerly “rough” town of Butte, population 45,000, became “one of the most rambunctious towns in America, with round the clock entertainment. Thousands of men crowded bars, clubs, vaudeville theaters, and the largest red light district in the West.”

This “rambunctious” spirit was grounded in a broad mix of workers’ backgrounds (“The ‘No Smoking’ signs in Butte mines were in 16 languages”), a sense of comradeship among the hard rock miners (“When you’re down in the mine and your partner and your other friends are down there, they’re like brothers”), and the hard-work ethic of their families. But it was soon dampened by the control exerted by mine owners. As miner’s granddaughter Marie Cassidy puts it, Butte was “quite smoky, from the smelters. A lot of the land was owned by the company.” Everyone else paid “ground rent.” Over still photos of miners standing before their meager cabins, she adds, “It’s the old saying, ‘The meek can inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.'”

As owners focused on exploiting resources, relations with workers deteriorated over the coming decades. Anthropologist Janet Finn observes the irony of Butte “being billed as the richest hill on earth,” while miners and their families were “living in pretty desperate conditions.” Photos show children scampering amid debris and belching smokestacks, as Finn remarks the “unsafe and unhealthy conditions. People were coming with one dream and living another reality.”

The company, Anaconda Copper, pressed for greater production, and conditions in the mines grew worse. Cassidy recalls, “Both my grandfathers left widows with six kids.” While the film resorts more than one to distracting reenactment scenes (women carrying babies or doing housework), the archival photos are stunningly effective: mustachioed corpses and coffins carried on men’s shoulders, women posing with their grim-faced children all underscore Cassidy’s point, that women alone faced a “profound shock… There was the emptiness of not having the support and the money to keep going.” Mothers and kids went to work as washerwomen and paperboys (selling company-owned newspapers). Cassidy’s grandmother told her three sons, “If they went to work in the mine, they had to move out. She said, ‘I can’t stand the stress of worrying day to day whether you’re going to come home at all or you’re going to come home broken.'”

Labor folklorist Archie Green describes the efforts of unions to secure improved working conditions, and the fight put up by the company. “In a sense, politics was an extension of Anaconda Copper. The top floor of the Anaconda building, that was the real City Hall.” The image of the anaconda was especially apt, he adds. “The company was everything.” World War One brought another sort of shock, as miners resisted working extra hours to “support a war they didn’t believe in.” The company hired undercover operatives, “turning miner against miner,” Byrne narrates. “Brute force became the rule of the day.”

Moreover, this essential conflict became the norm for decades to come, as Anaconda maneuvered to profit at workers’ expense. Mining accidents like 1917’s Granite Mountain Fire (which killed 168 miners) “traumatized [the] whole town.” But the company remained focused on expanding operations — into Chile (before that country nationalized its mines in 1971) and, back in Butte, through open pit mining, stripping the land and decimating the environment.

Butte, America considers the complex intertwining of families’ daily lives and the company’s insidious controls. The advent of open pit mining was both literally and symbolically devastating, as Anaconda blasted entire neighborhoods to get at the land. Cassidy recalls, “They killed the houses and when they did that, they killed the people that were in it. The neighborliness was gone.” This sort of mining is conducted not by men underground, but by trucks and bulldozers: long shots show a landscape stripped bare of trees and people.

The film expands its case against the company with the harrowing example of the Columbia Gardens fire. An amusement park given to the community by copper magnate William Clark in the early 1900s, Columbia Gardens featured a grand pavilion that burned to the ground in 1973. Shea declares, “There’s not too many people in Butte who don’t believe that it was set.” For all its efforts to save itself by decimating the community that had made it, Anaconda was bought out in 1976. But the film is less concerned wit the fate of Anaconda than with that of the miners and their families; it closes with the triumphant image of local workers designing and installing the Lady of the Rockies statue in 1985, a brief but moving coda to their difficult history. To this day, Butte, Montana is combating the environmental effects of all those years of mining.

RATING 6 / 10