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From Empty Mansions to the Berkeley Pit: The Environmental Legacy of a Great American Fortune

My vacation in Montana was great, and so was my reading: a unpublished novel by my friend James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish, 2008), an unnamed middle-grade novel for an award I’m judging, and Pete Dexter’s wonderfully earthy western, Deadwood (1986). Every time I looked up from the page, however, my wife, Marya, was engrossed in Empty Mansions (2013), a book that had already piqued my curiosity (along with that of enough other readers, obviously, to make it a best-seller). When she finally put it down, I picked it up, reading the largest portion during the plane ride home.

My real interest in the story arises
from its connection to Montana.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell JrLike everyone, I was fascinated by the depiction of Huguette Clark’s jaw-dropping wealth, by her puzzling personality, and by the avarice of the money-hungry people who circled her hospital bed like sharks. The authors do a fine and even-handed job of laying out the tricky ethical questions attending the heiress’ desire for privacy and the way she chose to spend her money. (Ultimately, I agreed with their conclusion that she was of sound mind, even as it saddened me to think of how much more good that money could have done for more deserving people.) But my real interest in the story arises from its connection to Montana. (Regular readers will know I was born and raised in that great state.)

While W. A. Clark, Huguette’s father, eventually extracted money from many places of the earth, he got his start in Butte, Montana, upstream from my native Missoula, as one of the “Copper Kings” who helped turn the “Richest Hill on Earth” into a gaping hole in the ground, a wound into which seeps water toxic enough to kill unwary waterfowl. There are mentions of Butte in the book, mainly as the place the Clarks left behind for greener pastures, but mentions of its toxic environmental legacy are perhaps even shorter than this blog post. That’s fine, I suppose. The book is about the effects of unbridled wealth on people, and our fascination with huge sums of money and the people who own them is what propelled this book to the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

But unbridled wealth affects far more people than the heirs and caregivers who squabble over the family fortune they did nothing to earn. Many of Clark’s miners traded their health and happiness for daily wages, and many residents of Montana received nothing but a legacy of environmental destruction. Downstream from Butte, the Clark Fork River carried heavy metals and arsenic downstream for more than a hundred miles, where much of the waste lodged behind the earthen Milltown Dam—the river’s watershed eventually becoming the largest Superfund site in the U.S.. In recent years, much progress has been made in restoring Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork, but even remediation has its price.

Opportunity Montana by Brad TyerBrad Tyer’s, Opportunity, Montana (2013), explores this history of pollution, exploitation, and efforts to undo the damange. Environmental activists scored a coup in forcing ARCO, the company that inherited the mess, to remove the dam and restore the river, but the toxic sediment didn’t magically disappear—it was dumped on the tiny town of Opportunity. Like Dedman and Newell, the authors of Empty Mansions, Tyer does a fine job of asking the big questions, and you could say his entire book is a rebuttal to W. A. Clark’s oft-quoted statement:

“In rearing the great structure of empire on the Western Hemisphere we are obliged to avail ourselves of all the resources at our command. The requirements of this great utilitarian age demand it. Those who succeed us can well take care of themselves.”

(Tales of troubled environmental legacies downstream, downwind, and underground are all too common, but readers interested in exploring another, unrelated crisis in Montana should consider Andrew Schneider and David McCumber’s An Air That Kills (2004). For years, the residents of Libby, Montana enjoyed the steady paycheck of mining vermiculite—used in construction materials, insulation, and gardening—until they found that it was contaminated with a particularly lethal form of asbestos.)

Butte hummed with activity even as the smoke
from the smelters poisoned the landscape,
killing every tree for miles.

I have had a long attachment to, and curiosity about, Butte, but it’s not much of a tourist draw. Most travelers experience it as as a series of signs on Interstate 90 between Bozeman and Missoula. (Just west of Homestake Pass, Butte abuts the Continental Divide.) If they do stop for more than gas and snacks, they may find their way to the observation platform over the Berkeley Pit, where they can see the inverse imprint of the Richest Hill on Earth. As mining consumed the hill, the mine consumed neighborhoods, the city almost literally eating itself. The mining companies chased copper and other minerals below the waterline, and when the mining finally stopped, the pumps did, too, and rising water has turned the pit into a deadly stew.

Butte is fascinating more for what it was than what it is. More than a boomtown, it was a boom city, at one point the most metropolitan place in the west, with an opera house, streetcars, and a rich mix of immigrants—Cornish, Irish, Finnish, Chinese, and many others—who brought their own cultures and traditions with them. It hummed with activity even as the smoke from the smelters poisoned the landscape, killing every tree for miles, fogging the streets, even as mine owners touted the benefits of the airborne arsenic to ladies’ complexions.

Red Harvest by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1927), is set in Butte, although he calls it “Personville” (and the residents call it “Poisonville”). Drawing on his own experiences as a Pinkerton detective there, his fictional account captures period detail, from the pollution and corruption and labor unrest to the crowded streets and opium dens. With Hammett’s famed Continental Op as the protagonist, this is deservedly one of the most influential crime novels of all time—and it came, in a way, from Butte.

More fascinating period detail can be found in The Story of Mary MacLane (1901), republished recently with her original, far better title, I Await the Devil’s Coming (2013). Maclane was a keenly intelligent teenager who kept a wildly emotional diary in which she chafed against her straitened existence in the harsh and rugged west. The book is hard to do justice in words, even more so at a couple years’ remove. My main memories are of MacLane taking walks onto the blasted heaths, agonizing about why such a brilliant person as herself is trapped in such benighted circumstances.

I Await the Devil's Coming by Mary MaclaneThe book’s publication did make her a celebrity—she was only 19 when it came out—allowing her to leave Butte, although she never did really figure out what to do with that intellect of hers. Maybe she was ahead of her time, maybe she lacked opportunities because she was a woman, or maybe she didn’t have enough practical talent to go along with her acerbic wit and self-declared genius. For those whose idea of hell is being stuck in the mind of an emotional teenager, it’s a tough book to finish despite its brief length. At the same time, it’s a fascinating look both at Butte and at the origins of a true original and early feminist.

All this just scratches the surface of Butte’s historical, environmental, and literary legacy. If you get the fever, too, I recommend Carl B. Glasscock’s classic War of the Copper Kings (1935) and a personal favorite, Reno Sales’ Underground Warfare at Butte (1964). And I’m still hoping to check out Aaron Parrett’s Literary Butte (2015), which I first heard about on Montana Public Radio’s “The Write Question.”



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

2 Comments on "From Empty Mansions to the Berkeley Pit: The Environmental Legacy of a Great American Fortune"

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  1. Cathy says:

    I too went on a summer vacation in Montana and I took a big stack of Montana books with me. Happy to keep reading with some of the titles I missed. Thanks!

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