Discover Butte’s Lively Past on an Underground Tour
I admit, I love a bit of racy history; the underground tales and gossip of days gone past are certainly more tantalizing to learn about. If you are in the vicinity of Butte, Montana for your travels, make sure to add the Underground Tour with Old Butte Historical Tours to your itinerary.
Fun Things to do in Butte, MT: Butte Underground Tour
This fascinating, family-friendly tour will take you beneath the streets and sidewalks of Butte to where a once lively part of the city thrived for decades and was recently rediscovered, nearly unscathed, during construction. Although I live in Montana, I only recently heard of this tour and was excited to learn colorful tidbits of what was often called the “Richest Hill on Earth.”
Copper put Butte on the map
To really understand Butte today, you need to understand its past. Built on a mineral rich hill, high in the Northern Rockies beside the Continental Divide, the town is surrounded by mountains, rivers and prairies. Even with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, life wasn’t easy for the early settlers who faced harsh living conditions.
Butte began in 1864 with the discovery of gold, yet prosperity fizzled after only five years. Being tenacious, the miners returned in 1871 and discovered silver and copper. Demand for copper quickly soared with the development of electricity and the expansion of the telegraph. By the late 1800s, Butte supplied roughly one-third of the copper for the U.S. The city embraced its reputation as the town “that plumbed and electrified America” and became one of the largest boomtowns in the west.
Butte went underground during Prohibition
As mining prospered, the town continued to experience rapid growth and by the turn of the century over 100,000 people, including a large immigrant population, resided in this small mountain community. The miners of Butte worked hard and played hard and gave Butte a reputation as a wide-open town where any vice was obtainable. Over 100 saloons dotted the city and bordellos flourished where widows of miners were often employed to support their families.
Fact: The Dumas Brothel located at 45 East Mercury Street in Butte was the longest operating brothel in the U.S and remained in business until 1982 when pressure from authorities finally forced its closure.
As you can imagine, Butte wasn’t at all amused by Prohibition when it came into effect in 1920. This forced much of the city to operate underground where speakeasies, stills, and cigar shops thrived and continued to quench the town’s insatiable thirst for spirits and booze for another decade.
The Butte Underground Tour
You are probably thinking all of this saucy history might not actually be “family” friendly. But believe me, the guides are quite adept at presenting a G-rated version of Butte’s racy history that leaves kids charmed and adults fascinated.
The Butte Underground Tour begins at the Old Butte Historical Tours center and starts off with a 20-minute “lecture” of Butte’s history. Our guide, Bob, had a wealth of historical information and he injected fun tidbits and humor to keep it moving. He loved taking questions from our group and had great interaction with my elementary-aged kids.
The lecture was just the right amount of time. Before anyone started to drift, we began the walking portion tour. Not only did Prohibition force many operations to go underground, the sheer population of Butte also forced stores into basements as space was at a premium and tunnels connected a thriving underground.
Recently re-discovered during construction are stores that have been locked up for nearly 40 years such as a barbershop and shoe store which were what we visited first. They are preserved in such a way that you almost feel like you are living in that moment; the energy of its time still lingers in the air and feels palpable.
Once we were back outside, our guide Bob pointed out several historical buildings (including the Dumas Brothel) and explained their significance. I was amazed to learn Butte contained one of the country’s first skyscrapers, still standing tall and proud at a whopping eight stories! It was a big deal back in its day and continues to be a fascinating landmark.
The Jail that Held Evel Knievel
The tour really picked up steam when we were led into the old city jail which was in operation from 1890 to 1971. The jail was forced to close in 1971 when the federal government classified it as a dungeon!
The infamous daredevil, Robert (Evel) Knievel received his famous moniker while serving time with William (Awful) Knofel in this jail. You can see why they closed this jail, as the conditions were absolutely awful for those incarcerated.
Go back in time with a visit to the Rookwood Speakeasy
The real highlight of the tour was getting to visit the Rookwood Speakeasy, which was recently discovered under a sidewalk. Talk about a find! It is so well-preserved that you feel like you were just time-warped back to the roaring 20s. You’ll want to belly up to the bar and discuss Hoover for President while jazz music plays in the background.
My kids didn’t understand what a speakeasy was or why they were illegal. They realized the significance once I explained that even wine was illegal for a period of time and this was where people had to sneak to enjoy a drink. To which they replied, “Oh mom would definitely be in here!”
This captivating tour lasts approximately two hours and is suitable for all ages. With that said, it’s not handicap or stroller accessible as there are stairs and tight places to walk through. I would recommend comfortable walking shoes and a light sweater in the summer as the basements can be chilly. For a family-friendly hotel in Butte, consider the well-located Hampton Inn Butte.
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Lead photo of Butte, MT courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism