Butte was booming in 1908. For all practical purposes, the War of the Copper Kings was over, even though the Anaconda Company would not completely consolidate its ownership of nearly every mine and more until after William Clark died in 1925. After Augustus Heinze was out of the picture in 1906, money that had been tied up in litigation freed investors to build, build, build. The building boom of 1906-1907 saw some of the grandest construction effort ever undertaken in Butte’s business district.
Among the buildings erected in that two-year period were the Metals Bank, Phoenix Block, Silver Bow Club, Leonard Hotel, Napton Apartments, the Water Company building (built initially for the Intermountain Telephone Company), the Carpenters Union Hall, the First Baptist Church, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and much more. The county’s population – mostly within the built-up area of Butte – was nearly 57,000 in the 1910 census, a gain of more than 20% since 1900.
And in 1908, the city directory listed 324 named mines.
With all that construction, attention was also finally paid to street paving and sidewalk construction. In June 1908, the city council was looking at a huge project to permanently pave sidewalks on residential streets all around the central business district, including much of Granite, Quartz, and Wyoming. Wooden walks were on the list for Woolman, Copper, Henry and Front as well as much of the East Side. Street paving was in the offing for the near West Side, including West Granite and Broadway, Idaho, and Washington. But until the paving was completed a few years later, ruts and gullies must have been common on unpaved streets, and boardwalk sidewalks, where present, could have washed out easily.
Unpaved roads and walkways and extensive mine operations all over the Hill – just imagine 324 mine dumps, some huge, some small – meant that storm water would likely have not just run off, it would have run off carrying plenty of dirt and debris with it.
Both in the city and nearby, pretty much all the trees were gone. Summit Valley’s forests, such as they were, were exploited early on for fuel in smelters, timbers in mine drifts, and wood for building construction. The land was bare. Mine tailings and sewage alike were discharged into Silver Bow Creek.
Silver Bow Creek where it crosses Montana Street and flows between the historic slag walls from the Colorado Smelter was highly constricted there. Upstream, wetlands had been drained to accommodate construction of smelters on the east side of the Hill, in Meaderville and points south. The stream was already nothing like the original creek that the first prospectors in 1864 likened to a silver bow glistening in the sun. There was little to prevent mass runoff and flooding.
Late May and early June 1908 were some of the wettest days in Montana history. Rain, wet snow, and snowmelt combined to produce one of the most devastating floods to ever hit the region. On May 31, a cloudburst at Columbus took out a mile of Northern Pacific track. In Butte, there was “too much snow” for Memorial Day services, and the parade was cancelled. On June 2, Butte received 0.9 inches of rain, part of a storm system that affected most of western Montana and disrupted train travel. On June 2, a washout at Bonita, about 30 miles east of Missoula, resulted in a train plunging off the track, killing one man. By that day, there had been no through train into Butte for 48 hours on the Northern Pacific, whose trains were stalled in Billings and at Drummond. And it continued to rain and snow. At Elk Park on June 2, the Butte Miner reported that “the flat resembled a huge lake, and the Boulder River is a raging torrent.”