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Cast iron: Beauty in strength

Cast iron: Beauty in strength

Brick by Brick

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Cast iron: Beauty in strength
Photos courtesy of Dick Gibson The green-painted cast iron on the 1898 Paumie Cleaners (today's Post Office at Galena and Dakota) defines the entrance. Some of the iron columns have wooden replacements at the top.

Editor's note: The following is one of a series of columns to run throughout the summer from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.

George Everett's "Look Up" contest last year educated and entertained us by drawing attention to the names and dates on tops of Butte's historic buildings.

Now we're asking you to "Look Down" for the same reason.

As an affluent boom town in the 1890s and early 1900s, Butte could afford the best when it came to building materials. Cast-iron store-front columns added strength, stability and beauty to many Uptown business blocks.

Cast iron is hard and brittle and made from molten iron poured into a mold. It is distinct from wrought iron, which is tough but malleable — able to be worked and hammered into complex forms. While cast iron is easier to produce, it contains more impurities and stands up to weathering less well than wrought iron, so it is often painted. Painted tin and wood columns often mimic cast iron so well that a magnet is needed to tell the difference.

Butte's surviving cast-iron store fronts are mostly columns and decorative entrance pieces. At least four local iron foundries produced cast iron products. Tuttle and Co. began about 1881 and ultimately merged with the Anaconda Co. as part of the ACM Foundry in Anaconda (today's AFFCO).

By 1884, Tuttle was associated with the Lexington Foundry that cast the iron at the building west of Insty-Prints.

The most common labels on our columns are from the Montana Iron Works and Western Iron Works, both Butte foundries.

The Maley Block, 113 Hamilton St. (Jordan's) sports a Western Iron Works logo.

Montana Iron Works, with its traditional backward "N" in the nameplate, built columns for the Galena Street Post Office, Hamilton Block, Quartz Street Fire Station (Archives), and the Imperial Block on East Park among many others.

Another local iron company was the Butte Foundry (look for its name on old manhole covers), and iron at 120 N. Main came from the Stedman Foundry in Helena.

Butte's wealth allowed for imported cast iron from major eastern foundries. The Frame Galerie building at Hamilton and Granite has columns from the Union Iron and Foundry Co. of St. Louis, and the Cohn (1901) Block on Broadway is graced by metal from the St. Paul, Minn., Foundry.

Mesker Brothers and Scherpe & Koken, both in St. Louis, Mo., cast many of the columns for stores in Philipsburg and Virginia City, and if you "look down" at the logos on iron fronts in Butte, you might find these famous iron workers memorialized in metal — along with a memory of Butte's long sustained boom period.

Dick Gibson is secretary and webmaster for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization. For more information about CPR, visit or stop by the office on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 405 W. Park St., Suite 200.


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