The Richest Hill on Earth
Butte, Montana is a fascinating place to visit. A guided tour enlightened me on how the history in that corner of Montana affected the whole nation (the labor movement, the 17th Amendment). So I was pleased to learn more via award-winning Western author Wheeler’s book, set in that “worst, cruelest, most generous, and amusing city in the United States.”
In 1892, Butte is a muddy, polluted hive of unregulated copper mining, driven by America’s hunger for telephone and electrical wire. The city teems with immigrant miners, while power rests in the hands of the three “Copper Kings.” King William Clark hires J. Fellowes Hall to run his newspaper, promote Clark’s bid for a Senate nomination, and oppose fellow king Marcus Daly’s machinations. Butte’s powerless are also part of the story: Red Alice, a miner’s widow who becomes a crusading socialist, and Maxwell the undertaker, who can’t seem to profit from the high death rate of miners due to spending too much in brothels. The fight over control of Butte’s wealth escalates when the third king, F. Augustus Heinze, uses bribed judges and lawsuits to jam up the courts so that he can steal copper from others’ claims.
The book’s strength is not characterization; most of the people are not very likeable. Even the downtrodden have dark sides, such as Red Alice’s children going hungry while she recruits socialists. For me, the impact of the book was being left with a sense of wonder at man’s inhumanity to man in that time and place. Butte suffers to this day from the excesses of the mining boom, ranking high on the list of Superfund environmental cleanup sites.