Boom and Bust and ... Then What?

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Thursday, August 29, 2013

Boom and Bust and ... Then What?

In the good old days it was known simply as “Butte, America,” one of the great American stories of boom … and bust. I visited Butte in western Montana last week as part of a conference put on by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

In the late nineteenth century, prospectors came to Butte looking for gold and silver. There was some, but Butte boomed after the advent of electricity when the need for copper wire exploded. Butte’s copper deposits were so vast that they inspired the name “The Richest Hill on Earth,” and it probably was.

Word of the untold wealth spread and people came from England, Ireland, Wales, Lebanon, Canada, Finland, Austria, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, Croatia, Montenegro, Mexico, and every U.S. state and territory to grab their share. Many struck it rich though with enormous risk to life and limb. One old miner told how when leaving for work, he never said, “Good bye,” opting for “See you later,” in hopes of returning when his shift was over.

Butte peaked in 1917 with a population of 100,000. Over the years there were 500 mines with about 10,000 miles of underground tunnels. The town also had a large red light district, dozens of churches, corrupt politics, a high crime rate, grinding poverty, and bars that never closed.

The world needed copper — lots of copper — and Butte sat on top of the Mother Lode. What could go wrong?

But, of course, all commodities experience price fluctuation and the cost of mining kept going up. Butte, a center of unionism, saw higher wages and more money spent on safety. These were good things, but they drove mining costs.

Then after the intense demand for copper during World War I, demand slacked and would continue to slack. By the 1950s the quality of the ore wasn’t nearly as good and mining moved from the deep tunnels to an open pit employing far fewer people. Soon the pit grew so large that it swallowed whole neighborhoods, displacing the residents some of whom had been there for generations. The city had consumed the copper. Now the copper was consuming the city.

During the seventies as people moved away, many buildings burned to the ground probably as a result of arson. There are vacant lots and empty buildings all over Butte’s downtown. The last deep mine closed in the 1980s. One open pit still operates with about 400 well-paid employees, but the big open pit that began in the 1950s is now the world’s largest Superfund site, a huge hole slowly filling up with toxic liquid.

All over Butte the tall steel towers that were used to lower miners into the Earth are nothing but reminders of once upon a time.

While that may sound grim, Butte is not hopeless. John Baden, founder of FREE, notes, “Three things are requisites for rural towns to thrive: scenic surroundings, good transportation, and a viable college or university. These are strong complements that together foster success.” Butte, he observes, has all three in abundance. So what’s holding it back?

Precisely the same thing that holds you and me back: a failure of imagination. We get caught up in the past and find it difficult to think our way beyond it.

Job losses, financial setbacks, deaths, divorces, empty nests, relocations and a hundred other crises can turn our booms into busts. We have to mourn and grieve, but can’t leave ourselves there. We have to reimagine a new future. So do cities, businesses, families and churches.

Butte is hardly unique, which is why the conference was called “Boom and Bust in America: Parables from Butte, Montana.” Booms and busts are part of our past, our present, and (don’t kid yourself) our future, Detroit only being the most glaring example today. The choice in a bust is to reimagine or to die. As Popular Mechanics put it, change has begun in Detroit as “visionaries and ordinary citizens, tired of living in a crumbling city, decided to quit waiting for someone to fix it.”

Butte clearly has some “visionaries and ordinary citizens” who are willing to do the same. Some of the beautiful Victorian homes are being restored and there are other signs of change, but it appears to early to say what the future holds for Butte.

This much, however, is certain: the town’s history is a reminder of the uncertainties of this life (see Matthew 6:19-20) and the need for hope, creativity and courage in our individual lives, our families, our communities, and our needy world. And Christians, the people whose religion highlights new life, new beginnings, resurrection and hope, can lead the way.