Next stop: Butte and Helena area of Montana. We’d put off getting the RV window replaced for 4 months due to the long dirt road out of the refuge. We didn’t want to pull the trailer on it more than necessary. Rocky Mountain RV is a Dutchmen RV dealer so we’d contacted them about the work. It was an easy repair for them and we picked up the trailer by that evening. We weren’t supposed to drive at highway speeds for 24 hours until the caulking dried. So we did our first Wal-Mart night about a mile down the road. Since this store is just off I-90, it is a very popular overnight spot. There must have been 15 RVs there.
We arrived at Lewis and Clark Caverns about 25 miles east of Butte the next day on a sunny afternoon. Less than two hours after setting up the trailer and screen house we were hit by a horrible thunderstorm that almost swept away the screen house but for the fact that Steve was outside when it hit. He dove for some shelter and was able to hang onto the tent. Down came the tent, never to be put back up. The next four days were heavy rain to drizzle and cloudy. Every local we met commented “This never happens in August! This is our driest, hottest month. We’re usually worried about fires not floods.” Four inches of rain later the sun came out. So most of our activities were inside. Most of the Montana State Parks are dry camping with water available. This park did have pay showers. By now we have a good routine for life without hookups.
After spending a lazy morning inside safe from cold and rain (My heart went out to the tent campers) we took advantage of a “dry” period to tour the caverns. The caverns were discovered by local cowboys in the 1880s and they enlisted the aid of another local by the name of Morrison to explore them. Morrison had experience with mine tunnels and a construction crew. Sensing an opportunity, Morrison began to give tours. The railroad was legal owner of the mountain and put a locked gate across Morrison’s new entrance. Morrison just came back with bolt cutters. This seesaw activity continued until his death in 1932. Most of the damage in the caverns occurred at this time when visitors were encouraged to take home samples. The railroad turned the caverns over to the National Park Service and for a time it was a National Monument under the management of Yellowstone NP. Why is it not still a National Monument? Travel to Yellowstone was difficult enough much less adding another four days travel roundtrip, an uphill climb with a 1700′ elevation gain and 2000 rickety wooden steps to be climbed up and down. With minimal visitation the federal government turned the caverns over to the state with the provision that safer, easier access be made. The CCC built 500 concrete steps going down, 100 coming up, a new exit tunnel, handrails and better lighting all with hand tools and minimal blasting. Today you access the entrance along a 3/4 mile paved path and steps with a 300′ elevation gain. The caverns are accessible only on a guided tour for $10/person. While we’ve been in several caves and caverns this one did have great variety. Our guide, Holly, did an excellent job of sharing information and entertaining stories. One thing we’d never done before is enter one chamber by sliding on our fannies. Lewis and Clark Caverns is Montana’s first and largest state park. While we were there they celebrated 77 years of operation.
More rain the next day so we went underground again. Not back to the caverns but to the World of Mining Museum in Butte. Butte began as a gold rush town in the 1860s. This was followed by silver mining and finally by it’s claim to fame…copper mining. Even after almost 100 years of copper mining it is said that more copper lies underneath Butte than has been removed. Butte is sometimes referred to as the city that’s a mile high and a mile deep. Underground mining was replaced after WWII by open pit mining (The Berkley Pit). Because water mixing with copper slag made highly acidic water (Ph 2) the site has been one of the most extensive Superfund cleanup locations and will be continuing for decades. The largest, The Anaconda Company, stopped production in the 1970s. Butte’s economy was dealt a lethal blow. Slowly the city has recovered but mining remains a vital part of it’s heritage.
The World of Mining Museum is a must see if you are in the area. We loved the old photos and sketches displayed at the museum. Do take the underground tour. Our guide had been an electrician in the mines so Steve asked him several questions about his work. We learned a lot of interesting facts such as the nickname for the large ore rocks in the buckets. They were called “Dugans” because the carts could become top heavy, topple and crush the miners. Why “Dugans? That was the name of the local funeral home! In 1917 there was one of the worst mining disasters in the country when fire broke out underground and 168 men perished. This led to many of the safety measures that are in place today and the formation of the Mineworkers Union. From 1914-1921 Butte was under military rule due to the miners unrest. We were surprised to learn that the general in charge was none other than Omar Bradley.
A self-guided surface tour through exhibits and a reconstructed mine town shows all the services that sprung up around the mines. Most of the miners were of German, Irish and eastern European ancestry so some of the businesses such as the sauerkraut factory reflected this. It took three people on the surface to supply services for every every miner underground. This was the first time we had seen the Chinese immigrants (laundry, herbal medicine) in business. If you go we hope time will allow you to see the 90 minute film Butte: An Original which was made for PBS. It covers mining but goes into the post 1970 period showing evolution from a company town to modern city. While we didn’t get to take the tour to Our Lady of the Rockies because of bad weather the film shows how it was constructed using a helicopter crane. I won’t give away one heart stopping scene. You’ll just have to go see for yourself. Butte has one of the largest historical districts in the nation and is home to the Montana Music Festival, just two reasons for us to return.
Day three…more rain. We found yet another inside activity, The Old Montana State Prison and the Montana Auto Museum in Deer Lodge. The prison is a looming granite structure built mostly with inmate labor and gave a grim look into life behind bars during the first half of the 20th century. A new prison has been built on what was once the prison ranch land about 5 miles away. Of note were two uprisings that ended in the death of a prison official. One uprising was ended by Bazooka fire from the National Guard and the damage to the building can still be seen.
In the same building is the Montana Auto Museum with over 200 classic autos. Some of our favorites were an old woody, an early popup camper, a 1950s Pontiac like my folks owned and a 1959 Ford Fairlane that was my first car. It took me a long time to save $200 for it!
Without a doubt the most unusual car was the modified VW Beetle that was used in Mad Max- The Road Warrior. Later it was bought by a retired Colonel who had great fun attaching other mock weapons until he was stopped one day by the Wyoming State Police and asked to remove the machine gun. Their switchboard had been flooded with calls about it!
Day four… drizzle in the morning but finally…SUN!! We returned to Deerlodge to visit our 107th National park site, the Grant-Kohrs NHS. If you are a fan of miniseries like Centennial or Lonesome Dove then you would see those stories come to life here. The ranch demonstrates cowboy life on a cattle ranch and the role ranching played in the settlement of the west. Most of the buildings are open for a self guided tour but the home can be viewed by guided tour only. No photos are allowed inside of the house. Most of the furnishings and decor items are original to the Kohrs family. The Kohrs were millionaires in their day. They not only survived the winter of 1886 when 60% of the cattle in Montana succumbed but regained all of their loses within three years. We were sorry to learn that we wouldn’t be local for the Annual Draft Horse Competition in mid-September. OK, another one for “When we come back…” We struck up a conversation with one of the volunteers. She and her husband have just begun volunteering and are trying to decide whether to sell their home and go full timing. It looks like they may be overlapping with us at Petrified Forest NP.
As we pull up stakes and head for Glacier NP, we notice that our blog has reached over 20,000 views in a bit over 2 years. Thanks to everyone who has enjoyed traveling with us.