Historic preservation: Butte, MT positions itself to grow heritage tourism

Original mineyard overlooking Butte.  Photo by Jim Jarvis.

Original mineyard overlooking Butte.  Photo by Jim Jarvis.

by Jim Jarvis, Butte, Montana

Butte, MT is at a crossroads, both physically and philosophically. Two major interstates come together here, and a vibrant past intersects with an uncertain, but promising future. Once the largest copper mining area in the country, this city of 32,000 inhabitants now faces an economic and cultural dilemma, remain true to its heritage and wait for mining and industry to return, or position itself to become one of Montana’s newest heritage tourism destinations.

With each passing year, the realization that the robust blue-collar economy of the community’s copper mining past will not return becomes more undeniable. With limited employment opportunities and a decaying built environment, younger residents are forced to leave the area in search of a sustainable living, and recruitment of new residents is stifled. As a result, the local population has remained flat for over two decades in spite of significant population increases in other areas of the state. Further complicating change is the associated stigma of being part of the nation’s largest Superfund site, extending over 100 miles down the Clark Fork River watershed.

After years of on-going environmental clean-up efforts, the dust is beginning to settle. Newly capped and stabilized mine dumps are now sprouting new growth, and the community appears more attractive and feels healthier. With this reclaimed natural environment, interest has also grown to restore the built environment. The older parts of Butte have begun to slowly transform as visitors, and new residents are re-discovering the Richest Hill on Earth.

Wrigley Spearmint Gum ghost sign. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

Wrigley Spearmint Gum ghost sign. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

Historic resources in Butte include a wonderful array of buildings that collectively represent the largest National Historical Landmark (NHL) district west of the Mississippi River. The Butte-Anaconda NHL is recognized as nationally significant for its mining and labor heritage, and by association the country’s emergence as an economic industrial superpower.

UPTOWN BUTTE: Developers are looking at more investment opportunities in Uptown Butte like these lofts and grocery store. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

UPTOWN BUTTE: Developers are looking at more investment opportunities in Uptown Butte like these lofts and grocery store. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

This significance is reinforced by the uniquely authentic nature of the “Butte Hill,” also known as Uptown Butte, complete with a dense urban center, defined by prominent commercial buildings, vast surrounding residential neighborhoods, and the ever-present mineyards with their towering headframes. Another powerful attraction to Uptown Butte is the colorful collection of early-20th century ghost signs that bear quiet witnesses to this once vibrant metropolis of over 100,000 inhabitants. These faded, hand-painted advertising signs adorn the side walls of brick buildings throughout the Uptown and offer a fascinating window into the past and a public art opportunity.

Since the local mining industry abruptly slowed decades ago, the economy has been in a long slumber. As a result, remaining investment dollars have tended to focus on the newer and “safer” suburban and strip mall areas of town, leaving large numbers of buildings in historic neighborhoods poorly maintained and subject to demolition as blight.

Fortunately, newcomers are interested in these areas, wishing to acquire something uniquely Montana at an affordable price. Tourism offers potential investors opportunities to easily explore and evaluate the community from a relocation or vacation home perspective. Under-utilized and vacant commercial buildings find new and expanded uses as retail and lodging facilities and residential properties are picked up as inexpensive homes.

Over the past 20 years, tourism has become Montana’s number one growth industry, generating more than $3 billion in annual revenue - second only to agriculture. Several Montana communities have taken advantage of this opportunity to diversify their local economies. Most notably Bozeman, but also smaller communities such as West Yellowstone, Whitefish, and Virginia City.

Through the nearby interstate corridor, three million plus non-resident travelers pass by each year. Yet for various economic, environmental, and cultural reasons, Butte has been hesitant to join this new gold rush, especially in the field of heritage tourism.

Festival City

Because of Folk Fest 2013 and other events, Uptown becomes the Festival City for part of the year. Source: Mainstreet Uptown Butte.

Because of Folk Fest 2013 and other events, Uptown becomes the Festival City for part of the year. Source: Mainstreet Uptown Butte.

The biggest game changer has come in the form of music, fun and re-purposing of an old mineyard site. Through the efforts of community leaders, in 2008 the National Folk Festival came to Butte.

Over the course of three years, with the support and expertise of the National Folk Festival program, Uptown Butte became synonymous with high-quality, family-friendly musical entertainment. The main stage for this event is located at the base of a historic mine headframe and makes for an incredible performance venue. Now in its seventh year, the enthusiasm, confidence, and professionalism created by the Folk Festival has merged with other existing events, including Evel Knievel Days, to transform Uptown Butte into the Festival City, at least for a few months during the summer.

Lessons learned: With proper planning and promotion, creative use of existing assets, and a commitment to high quality entertainment, even a community renown for being a tired, old mining town, can become a popular venue for events routinely exceeding 100,000 participants.

Uptown living

Over the past 10 years, a few developers with strong local roots and national experience have challenged the local convention that Uptown Butte was a fine place to work by day, but not suited to life after dark. Millions of dollars later, people now work, live and play in the Uptown again.

These developers saw a struggling home town economy, grossly undervalued commercial buildings, various financial incentives, and a market for high quality rental units for a growing university population and a small influx of working professionals and down-sizing retirees. Urban dwellers find the metropolitan atmosphere and conveniences of Uptown Butte an intriguing contrast to traditional suburban and rural living, especially amongst the rugged, natural wonders of southwest Montana. As a result, other developers are now seriously looking at investment opportunities in Uptown Butte.

Lessons learned: It shouldn’t take intimate local knowledge in order for economic development to occur. A community must make a serious commitment to reach out to the “outside world,” support new investment, and actively promote itself to attract new money and residents.


Signs of the past: Lost ghost sign, Rex Flour, has been proposed for restoration. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

Signs of the past: Lost ghost sign, Rex Flour, has been proposed for restoration. Photo by Jim Jarvis.

Historic Uptown Butte remains a uniquely authentic, and somewhat exotic, place for many visitors. A dense business district, complete with tall “skyscrapers,” and high-style architecture, and vast historic neighborhoods is not what visitors expect to find perched on the side of the Continental Divide in rural Montana. To many visitors this element of surprise is intriguing and mysterious: they want to know more about this “mining metropolis.”

Placemaking, the presenting and sharing of an experience that defines a place and tells its story, is challenging. What do you do, or more importantly, not do, to make a place interesting and inviting to visitors, and local residents? In your rush for tourism-based prosperity, how do you avoid becoming the dreaded tourist-trap, and losing the very community you’re trying to promote?

In a historic community like Butte, the passage of time is readily apparent. For the most part these layers of history survive, not from a direct effort to preserve them, but from the lack of sufficient funding or will to remove them as the community naturally evolved, or devolved, over time. As a result, time lies thick and heavy, much like a ghost sign forgotten on the side of a building. It was simply easier to ignore the sign and leave it alone, even though the business or product it advertised has long since ceased to exist. Today, the signs survive due to high lead-content paint, serendipitous protection from the elements, and this economic apathy.

In an effort to capitalize on the appeal of these works of “public art,” the community has attempted to inventory and document the signs. Numbering well over 100 in total, they come in all manner of shape, size, color and design. The question remains, now that the signs have gained some acclaim, and authentically “make the place,” how does a community actively assist in their preservation? As privately-owned, publicly displayed works of art many signs have been destroyed by complete over-painting to improve the appearance of a building, amateur restoration that rarely does service to art of the original painter, or simply the ravages of time.

Active treatment strategies for these signs remains a subject of great debate in the local and national historic preservation community. While restoration of a historic building is expected and encouraged, ghost signs are looked at differently. Their ephemeral nature and patina make them special - a simple advertising gimmick miraculously transformed into art by the passage of time and natural weathering.

In an effort to “do something” to increase awareness and appreciation for the signs, a pilot project is currently underway to restore “lost” ghost signs in the Uptown. These signs have faded to the point of near invisibility and are proposed for professional re-painting to illustrate this option, and allow the public to evaluate the result. Other options include, the hands-off “enjoy then while they last” approach, and stabilization through conservation to arrest further deterioration. Professional restoration or conservation are both costly options, but in the name of placemaking work will begin soon.

Lessons learned: Placemaking opportunities comes in various forms, whether food, local traditions, or a unique physical setting. A community should deliberately identify, protect, and celebrate those assets that make your place special. Today’s, typically older heritage tourist is more interested in collecting educational and entertaining experiences, than trinkets, and is willing to pay for the opportunity. Honor and respect your history, but don’t be afraid to use it for the benefit of the community.

Exciting times

Butte’s transformation has been slow, and much work remains, but progress is being made. The best evidence of this revitalization is the numerous summertime festivals and events that have sprung up through concerted community effort. They have attracted visitors to the Uptown area and changed the perception that Butte is “tired, dirty, and uninviting.”

As the older parts of the community are being rediscovered, a renewed appreciation and understanding of Butte’s contribution to our nation’s heritage is emerging, and with that comes confidence that things are getting better. It only takes time, something that Butte holds is high regard and exudes in abundance.

Jim Jarvis has worked in the community planning and development field, with an emphasis in historic preservation, for 12 years in Montana. He currently serves as the historic preservation planner for Butte, MT. He can be reached at jjarvis@bsb.mt.gov.

Published in the October/November 2013 Issue

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