The Richest Hill in the World (or an episode of the Simpsons)

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The New Tait Hotel in downtown Butte, Montana

The New Tait Hotel in Uptown Butte, Montana

Butte is still working its magic. This morning we went for coffee in the Venus Rising cafe near our hotel. When the waitress wasn’t toasting bagels, she or her friend sat at the piano playing everything from Leonard Cohen to the theme music from the film Amelie. I started chatting to a guy called Bob who works as a nurse in the local operating theatre. He invited us to hear a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas at an outdoor gig tonight. It turns out that Bob is a professional harmonica player and has played with Junior Wells and Warren Zevon. He will be bringing his mouth organ with him in case the urge to play should come over him this evening.

Uptown Butte

Hopper buildings in Uptown Butte, Montana

Closed shops in Downtown Butte

Closed shops in Downtown Butte

Then this afternoon took us to a very different side of town – different psychologically, although not geographically. We went to the Berkeley Pit. I had never heard of it either but it is known as ‘The Richest Hill in the World’. Well, it was the richest hill. Now it is a one-mile long, half-mile wide and 1,800-foot deep hole in the ground formed by the open-cast mining of copper. When mining stopped  in 1982, the pumps that kept groundwater at bay were shut off and the hole began to fill up with water. It is now a huge lake of toxic water that kills passing birds and by 2020 is expected to seep poison into the groundwater of Butte. But, in a very American way, it is has been turned into a tourist attraction. There is an audio guide that tells you about the pit, which could have been scripted by Matt Groening. A very cheery woman (who speaks against a background of homespun, upbeat banjo music) tells you how you can touch objects that were excavated from the toxic hole before it filled in. Imagine that! You and your kids can fondle a bunch of rocks poisoned with heavy metals, arsenic, sulphuric acid and a host of other nasties.

The Berkeley Pit on the edge of Uptown Butte

The Berkeley Pit on the edge of Uptown Butte

In the making of this mine several neighbourhoods in Butte were depopulated and the houses razed to the ground. But according to our cheerful guide, the people were more than happy to have their houses and businesses destroyed because they knew that ‘without the mine, there would be no jobs’. I could hear Mr Burns whispering in my ear, ‘burn their houses, kill their babies, send them down the mines!’

A working mine just next to the Berkeley Pit. You can see the haze from it in Uptown Butte

A working mine just next to the Berkeley Pit. You can see the haze from it in Uptown Butte

Butte is certainly a complex place. Piano-playing waitresses, harmonica-playing nurses and toxic tourist attractions. Of course, we are loving it.

Our motel in Butte. The town is a signage lover's paradise. Look at this typeface.

Our motel in Butte. The town is a signage lover’s paradise. Look at this typeface.

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