Steel sentinels: Headframes loom large as reminders, attractions

No city in Montana, or possibly anywhere in the Western U.S., offers so many iconic landmarks as Butte and its signature headframes.

The 12 or so black steel structures that remain from the city’s mining heyday jut from seemingly random spots on the Butte Hill. They mark the gateway to the underground mines — the economic survival source for many immigrants in the city’s early years, and for some, incredible wealth.

Cables from a mine’s hoist lowered men, mules, supplies and equipment in cages from the headframe to the darkness hundreds of feet below. Men toiled, pulling the valuable ore – copper, silver, gold — from the earth. It put Butte on the map.

Tourists mistakenly call the towering structures derricks, which makes the locals chuckle. Derricks are for oil. Headframes are for mining.

Each of the headframes stands over a mine that boasts its own unique legacy. Consider these snippets, taken from “A Self-Guided Tour of the Mines of Butte” flier:

*Original Mine, 1878-1940, 3,569 feet deep. “As the name implies, the Original was one of the first quartz lodes on the Hill.” It’s said that mining in Butte was initiated at this site. In 1856, the first known party of white explorers in the region arrived here and reported finding a shallow prospect hole which had been dug, possibly by Native Americans, with a sharpened elk horn. From these humble beginning rose the 127-foot structure that still stands today.” The headframe is now the center of a venue for concerts and festivals.

*Kelley Mine, 1949-1980, 4,810 feet deep. The Kelley Mine, with its two shafts, is actually the youngster on the Hill. It represented the most technologically advanced works at the time, with a concrete-lined shaft installed to reduce the hazard of fire. The cage could hold 50 miners, a giant step from the early days when cages were built to hold but six men.

*Mountain Con, 1890-1974, 5,291 feet deep. Standing at an elevation of 6,125 feet, the “Con,” real name Mountain Consolidated, is more than a mile high and a mile deep — the deepest on the Hill. This copper mine was one of the biggest producers in the industry. Today, it’s the centerpiece of a city park — Foreman’s Park — and a related system of paved walking trails.

*Steward Mine, 1885-1950, 4,400 feet deep. The Steward was a prolific producer of silver and copper. The brick engine room identifies it as a W.A. Clark mine, Clark preferring brick over wood to protect his expensive machinery. The headframe is another relic of the days of the Copper Kings. It was erected at a cost of less than $9,000. The cage of the Steward was raised and lowered by a steam-driven engine which was later converted to compressed air.

City leaders understand the value of the headframes as tourist attractions. Several years ago, the city obtained a $192,000 grant from the National Park Service for infrastructure improvements, including new paint, lighting and touch-up work on the structures.

More than 10 years ago, the community launched a project to light several of the headframes. Through donations from community members and companies, one by one some of the headframes were outlined with strings of red LED lighting, which today continues to give them a festive presence on Butte’s night skyline.

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