Last updated: November 2, 2020
The Butte-Anaconda Historic District in Montana includes the communities of Butte, Anaconda, and Walkerville as well as the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railroad. This was one of the most productive mining regions in the United States, and the source of nearly one third of the entire world's copper in the early 1900s. Known as the "Gibraltar of Unionism," Butte was also one of the centers of the U.S. labor movement. The Butte-Anaconda Historic District showcases the industrialization of the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the response of organized labor to this rapid growth.
Butte was founded as a mining town after the discovery of silver in the region in 1872, but was known primarily for its copper production - the highest output in the U.S. - giving it the nickname the "Richest Hill on Earth." In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, demand for copper grew rapidly due to the development of new technologies such as electricity. This demand reached a high point during World War I, when copper was used for the manufacture of ammunition. Mining areas historically pass through an evolution of boom, dramatic growth, and then decline or "bust." Copper continued to be mined in and around Butte through the 20th century, declining during the Great Depression in the 1930s, picking up during World War II, and declining again until it ceased in the 1980s when the largest mining company in the area, ARCO, closed its entire Montana operation including the mines in Butte and the smelting facility in Anaconda.
While many mining companies operated in the Butte area throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the largest and most powerful was the Anaconda Mining Company. Marcus Daly, one of the famed "Copper Kings," formed the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company in 1899. Daly's battles with Montana's other Copper Kings resulted in his company acquiring most of the mines in the area, giving "The Company" a virtual monopoly over mining in and around Butte and dominance over copper production in the U.S. By the 1900s the Anaconda Mining Company was one of the largest mining companies in the world, and retained that position until 1977 when it was sold to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO).
A strong counterforce to the company's monopoly was organized labor. Mining underground paid well, but was hard dangerous work. Between 1906 and 1925, 685 miners in the Butte area died and hundreds more were injured or disabled in accidents. In addition, whenever money was needed for new equipment or profits dropped, management either cut wages or refused to pay workers. The first labor strike in the Butte area took place in Walkerville in 1878, when workers at two mines refused to accept a pay cut. They formed the Butte Workingmen's Union, based on the miners unions in the Comstock mining district in Nevada. In 1893, the Western Federation of Miners was formed in Butte, followed in 1905, by the Industrial Workers of the World and later the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). By the early 20th century, 34 different unions represented over 18,000 workers including miners, construction workers, brewers, mill workers, carpenters, teamsters, restaurant workers, bartenders, musicians, and newsboys. Butte's industries and businesses were effectively a closed shop and would stay that way, on and off, until the 1980s.
Chinese immigrants began coming to the Butte area in 1868, with the establishment of the first placer gold mines. Eventually forced out of mining, the Chinese settled on the perimeter of Butte and began to open various businesses to support the local community. In the early 1880s, a Chinese immigrant named Ing Pong constructed a log cabin just west of Main Street next to the "red light" district, and a centralized Chinatown began to form. Over time Butte's Chinatown expanded to include the area between South Colorado, West Galena, South Main, and West Mercury Streets. The heart of Chinatown, known as China Alley, was a narrow passageway that ran through the middle of the block from West Galena Street to West Mercury Street. Chinese businesses such as herb shops, noodle parlors, laundries, and mercantiles were in a central location in and around China Alley.
Economic depressions in the 1870s and 1890s heightened anti-Chinese tensions across the U.S. Labor unions became the primary force behind anti-Chinese sentiments in both Butte and Anaconda. Fears of economic competition and cultural differences along with racial prejudice helped to create an unwritten understanding between organized labor and company owners that Chinese laborers would not work in the underground mines, the smelters, or join local unions. In 1884, the unions ordered Chinese immigrants to leave Butte with little success, and a boycott of Chinese-owned businesses in 1891-92 failed due to lack of public support. Another boycott in 1893 also failed in Butte, but was a relative success in Anaconda, as many of the town's Chinese residents left for friendlier locations.
In 1896, the labor unions and the Butte Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of both Chinese and Japanese-owned businesses and businesses employing Chinese or Japanese immigrants. A group of 130 businessmen led by Hum Fay, owner of the Palace Restaurant, Dr. Huie Pock, and merchant Quon Loy sued the labor unions in Federal court. In Hum Fay, et al. v. Baldwin, also known as the Chinese Boycott Case, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for an injunction to stop the boycott. The court found in favor of the Chinese plaintiffs and ordered the unions to end the boycott and pay $1,750 in legal fees and expenses. While Chinese and Japanese-owned businesses did not recoup any of the estimated $500,000 in lost revenue caused by the boycott, the ruling did ensure that there were no further organized actions against Chinese and Japanese businesses or workers.
In the early 1890s, the Wah Chong Tai Company, Seattle's oldest mercantile, opened a franchise in Butte on West Galena Street, eventually moving, in 1898, to a new multi-story brick building on the corner of West Mercury Street and China Alley. The mercantile was on the ground floor with an herbal shop at the back and a restaurant on the second floor. The Wah Chong Tai Company helped to anchor Butte's Chinatown and played an important role in the Chinese community. It was a meeting place where people would go for social interaction, to complete financial transactions, and to find lodgings, translators, and jobs.
In 1909, the Wah Chong Tai Company constructed a two-story brick building next door. The new building contained two storefronts on the first floor separated by an entrance to the new Mai Wah Noodle Parlor on the second floor. The building also had a "cheater story," a floor between the first and second stories that was divided into small rooms with six foot ceilings. These were commonly used as retail shops and lodgings.
Another prominent business in Chinatown, the Pekin Noodle Parlor owned by Hum Yow, a well-known businessman, was moved in 1911, from its previous location on West Mercury Street to the second floor of a new brick building on South Main Street. The first floor of the building had two storefronts, one of which housed Hum Yow's Chinese Goods and Silks store and the basement, which was made up of multiple small rooms, at one time had a Keno parlor. Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong, both California-born first-generation Americans, occupied the living quarters in the back of the building, eventually raising three children in Chinatown. The Pekin Noodle Parlor building was also the home of the Chinese Mason's lodge as well as a gathering place for newly arriving Chinese immigrants.
Similar to Butte, Anaconda had a Chinatown that provided goods and services to its small Chinese community. The town of Anaconda, located west of Butte along the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railroad, was formed in 1883 as a company-owned town to support the nearby copper smelting/refinery facility Marcus Daly, owner of the Anaconda Mining Company, opened. The location of Chinatown was along Birch Street, between Front Street and East Park Avenue, on the edge of the commercial district. Two of the first businesses in Chinatown were the Sing Lee Laundry on Birch Street and the Tri Yeun Company grocery on East Park Avenue. There were also small log cabin residences on Front Street, communal gardens east of Birch Street, and, just as in Butte, noodle parlors, laundries, restaurants, produce stores, and various shops.
Early 20th century Progressive movements in Butte helped contribute to the decline of its Chinatown. Citing health and safety concerns, the city tore down many of the old wood frame buildings in Chinatown and the neighboring "red light" district. The newly cleared lots were rebuilt with automobile showrooms, service stations, and parking garages. By 1940, between 70 and 80 Chinese remained in Butte, down from an estimated high of 2,500. During World War II, many Chinese residents left for war-related jobs in cities on the west coast. As people sold their Chinatown property, the neighborhood lost its Chinese characteristics.
Today, the Butte-Anaconda Historic District is a well preserved reminder of the town's mining prosperity. Many of the buildings and mining structures in the district retain their historic integrity and show the architecture associated with the development of a western mining economy. The Mai Wah Noodle Parlor and Wah Chung Tai buildings are preserved and house a museum that interprets the Asian experience in Montana. The Pekin Noodle Parlor is still located in its original building on South Main Street and is considered one of the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Walking tours and self-guided tours of the Butte-Anaconda Historic District are available and give visitors the opportunity to see not only the historic architecture in Butte and Anaconda, but also inactive copper mines, remnants of one of the most successful mining towns in America.
The Butte-Anaconda Historic District is located in the communities of Walkerville, Butte, and Anaconda in Montana. To see buildings and sites within the District, visit the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark District website.
A project through the Underrepresented Community Grant Program, which works to diversify nominations submitted to the National Register of Historic Places, funded the effort to recognize the significance of these properties related to minority communities within the Butte-Anaconda Historic District.