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Butte underground: Speakeasy-style bar opens Uptown

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If you’re walking along Park Street and happen upon a sign that reads “Fifty One Below,” that’s not the temperature in Uptown Butte. (Although the Mining City can get pretty cold in the wintertime.)

The Miner's Hotel in Butte

A historic photograph on the wall above the entrance to Fifty One Below, the new speakeasy under the Miner's Hotel, illustrates what West Park Street looked like in Butte during the Prohibition era.

Instead, Fifty One Below refers to a new speakeasy-style bar that is the brainchild of Miner’s Hotel proprietors Ted, Cheryl and Derek Ackerman.

The Ackerman family has been working to construct the bar since the fall, and held a soft opening last week.

Aside from its speakeasy vibe, what makes Fifty One Below notable is its location in the basement of the Miner’s Hotel.

Situated at 51 W. Park Street, the basement is the former site of two historic vaults, including a fur vault, where the women of Butte once stored luxurious fur coats.

Built in 1913, the three-story Miner’s Hotel was once the stomping ground of several notable businesses: Miner's Savings & Trust Co., National Furs and the Miner’s Bank Block Furnished Rooms.

The entrance to the speakeasy

The entrance to Butte's new speakeasy looks to be a fancy coat room with furs at first glance and reveals a secret passage to Fifty One Below located on West Park Street below The Miner's Hotel.

Starting operations sometime in the 1940s, National Furs offered retail and fur storage.

At one time, Ted Ackerman said Wednesday, the company stored around a $250,000 worth of furs in its below-ground vault, which today makes up the majority of the bar’s west side.

Ackerman demonstrated the fur vault’s combination lock and armored door Wednesday, explaining that customers entered the vault from the rear of the building. Once they turned a combination, they had to unlock a second set of doors with a key.

“There was a lot of money in there,” Ackerman said.

Fifty One Below opened last week with eight drafts and a handful of wines.

In addition to the standards, the full bar offers a rotating menu of signature cocktails, many of which pay homage to the building’s history.

“We’ve sort of created cocktails that are biographical,” said bar manager Andrew Duggan, who developed the drinks.

One cocktail, the Pink Mink, features bourbon, strawberries and muddled basil, and is a nod to National Furs.

Another, the Carroll and Henry, references prohibition agent Carroll Olson and bootlegger Henry Allexis, who purportedly both stayed at the Miner’s Bank Block. Duggan said the cocktail features ingredients that don’t seem to go together but nonetheless make a pleasing drink.

Derek Ackerman, meanwhile, said the Robert Logan, which includes over-proof rum, lime and flavored rosemary, pays tribute to Robert Logan, who escaped slavery and made his way to Butte in the late 1800s.

According to an article by Butte historian Richard Gibson, Logan worked at Miner’s Bank as a janitor after retiring from a popular choral ensemble the Georgia Minstrels, which traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada. Logan died in 1945 and was “remembered as one of the greatest bass singers of his day,” Gibson writes.

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Speakeasy entrance

Once customers enter through a secret door they can peer through an old bank teller window before finally being allowed entrance into Butte's new speakeasy, Fifty One Below.

For many, Fifty One Below will be a place of the imagination.

Guests find their way to the bar from the hotel’s ground level, where they descend along a set of stairs into the speakeasy‘s underworld. There they enter the bar’s lobby and are greeted by advertisements from National Furs.

“If you don’t know furs — know your furrier,” one ad reads.

Vintage furs hang from a rack, and one particular fur is displayed prominently on an opposite wall.

According to Ackerman, the fur belonged to his mother-in-law, who purchased the jacket from National Furs.

Next, visitors need to get past the doorman, who will greet them from an authentic Miner’s teller cage and provide access from a mechanical door.

A secret password will be required, or maybe guests will need to knock three times to get inside, Ackerman said, noting the family is still working out the details.

Regardless of the method, getting inside the bar won’t be too difficult, especially if one simply asks for the password at the hotel’s front desk.

As guests move into the bar, they’ll enter an environment that has swank appeal but isn’t overwrought.

The Ackermans have repurposed a host of materials to create decorative elements inside.

Transom windows that once adorned the doors of the boarding house have been fashioned into light fixtures that glow with colored light. The Ackermans have also created a water fountain from the pipework of the building’s old steam-based heating system.

“You’ve got to have a little fun, right?” said Ackerman, referring to the fountain.

For the Ackermans, the speakeasy’s setting is the kind of place that sparks creativity.

The family hopes to one day host masquerade-like events, during which men and women can dress up and perhaps even don the bar’s collection of fur coats, which have been donated to the business.

Summarily, the Ackermans are finishing up work on a small theater room in the building’s rear, replete with theater seats, and have ambitions to turn a bank record vault into a wine cellar.

The family also hopes to provide private access to the bar from the hotel’s President’s Room, where a staircase into the basement is currently hidden behind a wall. The family plans to demolish the wall and provide some kind of passage to the stairs.

Stepping into the past in Butte's new speakeasy

Reclaimed wood from boxes and old piping from The Miner's Hotel are used in the stairway entrance to Fifty One Below. 

“People like secret staircases,” said Ackeman, adding that he hopes to complete the President’s Room renovation in the next 10 days.

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