Showplace of pollution as reminder

October 27, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BUTTE, Mont. -- It was once called the richest hill in the world. Street signs that lead to the Uptown district of this gritty old mining city still carry the dissonant boasts of that past: Iron Street, Aluminum Street, Platinum Street, Silver Street and even Mercury Street.

But today's Butte is more likely to be known as Poisonville, more likely to be disparaged as Butt, Montana. Even the city's champion and historic preservation officer Mark Reavis admits ruefully, "People come here and say 'yuck.'"

The city built on copper sits just off the highway that takes over 2 million visitors a year from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park on a Winnebago pilgrimage in search of the pristine old West. But there are no buffalo in Butte, no natural wonders.

What leaves visitors awe-struck here is the quintessential unnatural wonder. Right in the heart of Butte, the mother of all open pit mines, the Berkeley Pit, stretches a mile wide, a mile and a half long and a quarter of a mile deep.

Poisoned lake

On a brilliant October morning, standing on the edge of this astounding pit wrenched from a hill, Mr. Reavis points down to what could be called the deepest lake in Montana. That's if "lake" were the right word for 28 billion gallons of contaminated pit water guarded by an eerie soundtrack to warn off migrating birds from landing in its lethal chemical soup.

It's been over a century since Butte began mining one-third of all the copper used by an America demanding electricity. It's been 80 years since this wide-open city of immigrants was the site of one of the country's worst mining disasters. Sixty years since this boom and bust company town witnessed some of the most violent labor conflicts in our history.

In 1981 the Berkeley Pit was closed and in 1985 the area was declared the largest Superfund cleanup site in the country. But today the people of this environmental disaster zone are trying to come to terms with a complicated Western past.

While the cleanup inches forward on the land and in court, a cohort of preservationists and historians are embarking on a unique plan to also preserve what happened here.

Environmentalists may envision "cleanup" as returning a polluted place to its "natural state," but Mr. Reavis talks about also saving tTC "the dirty, gritty, ugly things that represent real life."

A planner for this project, Dori Skukrod, explains, "We don't want to mask history or to have the environment unsafe for our children, but there has to be a strategy to show the world what we all did here."

As part of this strategy, Butte applied to become a national park, to have its industrial minescape join the Montana archipelago of parks. The very idea -- Superfund waste site as park? -- was greeted by some with sneers and derision. Butte also applied for the more likely title of Labor History Landmark.

But either way, the ambitious long-term strategy is to transform Butte into both a reminder and a reprimand to history.

It's a design never tried on such a large and complex scale, to restore Victorian homes and brothel buildings, mine shafts and old mining equipment into one historic place. It's a design to pay homage to the people who worked, lived and died here. And also leave a record of the environmental cost of copper in pits and waste piles.

No theme park

They do not have in mind a pollution theme park. There will be no water slides, no Disney rides through the mines. But if it works, they dream of attracting visitors on the trail of "heritage tourism."

In fact, this place, where Charlie Chaplin made his American debut and temperance leader Carry Nation met her match in an intemperate brothel madam, is as much a part of the story of the West as the geysers of Yellowstone. It's a story about national need and corporate greed, the use and abuse of resources. A story continuing today, even here, where a newer, cleaner copper pit is gouging another hill around the corner.

Butte is no longer the richest hill in the world. Its wealth is history now. But it's a place that can entice the rest of us to stop awhile and take home some mixed messages about the past along with our T-shirts.

Montana, where they boast of being the "last best place," is at the heart of the Western romance. But just off the beaten path, Butte is offering itself as the reality check.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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