Butte, Montana – known as the Richest Hill On Earth – was one of the great mining towns of the American West. By 1900 it was a riotous community of nearly 100,000 miners and entrepreneurs of every nationality, and they built their city on the side of a mountain honeycombed with gold and copper mines. During the boom years between 1888 and 1910 the west side of town was populated with numerous mansions and graceful Victorian homes.
The Copper King Mansion was built in the mid-1880s for William Andrews Clark who made a fortune financing the mining business in Montana. It was said that ‘never a dollar got away from him that didn’t come back stuck to another’ and by 1900 he was one of the wealthiest men in the world. The estimated quarter of a million dollar cost of the house is said to have represented just one half days’ worth of Clark’s annual income. Frescos adorn the ceiling of every room and hand-carved fireplaces, bookcases and staircases feature nine different woods.
The Charles Walker Clark Mansion, also known as the Chateau, was built in 1898 as a wedding present from W A Clark his son ‘Charlie’ and his bride Katherine. If his father was a genius at accumulating money, Charlie and his brother Willie had a talent for spreading it around. A disappointed cabbie who received a small tip from Clark senior once complained ‘Why your sons always tip me a dollar.’ ‘Yes I know’ replied Clark senior, ‘Willie and Charlie have a rich father – I haven’t.’ The architect of the four-storey, 26-room mansion was Will Aldrich of Boston who is said to have patterned the house after a chateau his clients had visited on their recent honeymoon in France. Construction of the mansion employed wood from every continent, including satinwood from India, English oak and Circassian walnut from the Black Sea. Originally there was no lawn surrounding the house because pollution from the areas ore smelters killed off any vegetation and instead it was surrounded with cobblestones.
Built in 1906, 829 West Park is another of Butte’s palatial residences. This Neoclassical mansion stands out among the rows of Victorian gothic homes and made a clear statement to visitors that its occupants were happy to welcome visitors to come admire their wealth.
This pair of old houses perched at the town’s summit look like something straight out of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, having far more in common with houses back east than the type of cabin home that separated most Montana residents from the elements. Average winter temperatures in Butte are well below freezing – we certainly wouldn’t want to spend those long months camped out in that garret.
Butte’s sister city was Anaconda, some twenty miles to the west, which sat in a small valley below the permanently snow-capped peak of Mt Haggin. Known as the Smelter City, Anaconda’s wealth and fame came from the copper smelter that adorned the mountainside. It drew on mountain lake water from four miles further up the valley and smelted the vast amounts of copper ore coming out of the Butte hills which had previously been sent all the way to Swansea for processing. Anaconda was a quieter, more family-friendly alternative to Butte, which at the turn of the century could claim more brothels than any other city in America. Anaconda even aspired to become the capital when the Montana Territory was given statehood in 1887. Its streets on the west side of town were also lined with graceful residences, many of which have survived.
The porches of 420 W. Park Avenue were certainly designed for a gathering such as this. Though one wonders how much time you could spend outside in a white dress enjoying the afternoon with an enormous smelting plant belching out smoke. They certainly gave it a try.
Around the corner is another New England style mansion dating from the 1890s. Though it doesn’t have any connections to Anaconda copper kings, it does have one claim to fame. My grandmother Rosalba O’Brien was born in this house in 1919.