The deaths of hundreds—and then thousands—of snow geese in two mass die-offs at the Berkeley Pit, the first in November 1995 and the second in late 2016, have brought the mining town of Butte, Montana more than its share of bad publicity. But that doesn’t change the fact that Butte is a fascinating place to spend a day or two, especially if you’re interested in mining history.
1. The Berkeley Pit
At the top of the list of interesting things to see in Butte is the aforementioned Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake that holds the unusual distinction of being both a Superfund site and tourist attraction. For a modest fee ($2 when I visited), you can gain entrance to the Berkeley Pit Viewing Stand [pictured above], situated high above the 40 billion gallons of acidic water, which is contaminated with high concentrations of metal sulfates—including iron, copper, aluminum and zinc.
The Berkeley Pit will be especially interesting if you take a few minutes to learn about its remarkable history. Most notably, perhaps, is that its toxic waters have recently “proved to be a rich source of unusual extremophilic microorganisms,” says University of Montana-Missoula research professor Andrea Stierle, who notes that the “Pit microbes produce compounds that we hope [can] be used as antibiotics and may even be used to treat inflammatory diseases and some cancers.”
2. The World Museum of Mining
Some visitors regard the World Museum of Mining—located on an actual mine yard, the Orphan Girl Mine—as Butte’s most compelling attraction, something of a trip back in time. Open seven days a week between April 1 and October 31 the museum includes “a faithful re-creation of an 1890s mining town, with 15 intact historic structures and approximately 35 buildings constructed from old materials.”
One can take an underground mine tour, providing a fleeting glimpse of what it was like for the thousands of men who worked the veins below the city during Butte’s heyday.
3. Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Fire Memorial
Rock mining’s most lethal disaster took place in Butte a hundred years ago this June. A mine fire that started on June 8, 1917—in the city’s Granite Mountain shaft—ultimately took the lives of 168 men, most of who were trapped and overcome by noxious fumes.
The Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Fire Memorial—free and open 24/7—was dedicated on June 8, 1996, and features an open air plaza “offering visitors a panoramic view of headframes … the remnants of a once-flourishing mining industry, and most importantly, interpretation of the events, people, and turbulent times that surround the catastrophic Granite Mountain/Speculator fire. A visit to this site will help you appreciate the national significance of Butte’s mining and labor history.”
4. Evel Knievel Days
Held the last weekend in July, the annual Evel Knievel Days festival (est. 2002) is a free “extreme sports festival” that celebrates the life of Butte’s most famous son, Evel Knievel, an insurance salesman-turned-stuntman whose death-defying motorcycle stunts made him an icon of the 1970s.
As Failure noted shortly after his death in 2007, “Before the X Games, Jackass, and World’s Widest Police Chases, there was Evel,” who rose to national prominence after he attempted to jump the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on December 31, 1967. “While he cleared the fountains easily at 80 mph, he botched his landing and lost control of his bike, going head over handlebars, then heels over head, head over heels,” wrote Greg Beato, reminding us that for Evel Knievel “a successful jump was good, a spectacular crash was even better.”
You’ll likely see your fair share of accidents at Evel Knievel Days, which offers both “stunts and purse races—featuring motorcycles, BMX, mountain bikes and skateboards as well as activities for the whole family.”
5. Evel Knievel’s grave
Born in Butte on October 17, 1938, Robert ‘Evel’ Knievel passed away on November 30, 2007, at home in bed, after years of declining health. It’s probably not the way Evel envisioned his death. In fact, his tombstone was fashioned 33 years earlier, in 1974, readied in case he died while attempting to “jump” Idaho’s Snake River Canyon on his steam-powered ‘Skycycle.’
Knievel is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, off Harrison Ave., the marker not far from the main cemetery gate. If there’s ever a man who deserves a Quick Response Code on his headstone—one that serves up a video that recalls his life and most spectacular crashes—it’s Knievel.
Sadly, Evel’s headstone includes no QR Code. It does, however, include the following failure quote: “A man can fail many times in life but he’s never a failure if he tries to get up.”