There is probably no more suitable spot in Montana for the World Museum of Mining than Butte. Known as The Richest Hill on Earth, the city got its nickname from the area’s unique geology that produced scores of intersecting veins of silver, gold and copper ore. The mining heyday lasted a century, from 1882 to 1982, and that heritage is preserved at the 22-acre World Museum of Mining. Located on a silver and zinc mine site, the museum includes a recreated 1890s mining town, a vast array of outdoor mining equipment, indoor displays of minerals and mining relics, and an underground tour of the Orphan Girl Mine.
Hell Roarin’ Gulch
“Authentic reproduction” might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way to describe Hell Roarin’ Gulch, an 1890s-era mining town that has been recreated on the museum grounds. Thirty-five buildings were carefully reconstructed from old materials, and 15 free-standing historic buildings, including two churches, the school house, superintendent’s house and others, were relocated here intact. If you didn’t know the village had been recreated, you’d swear the buildings and cobblestone streets were completely original.
As you stroll back in time along the town’s boardwalks, you can peer into the store windows and wander inside the shops. All are filled with antiques from Butte and nearby mining communities. Want to know what type of hat ladies wore around the turn of the twentieth century? Check out the finery at the milliner. Want to see what potions were available from the pharmacist? Original bottles of medicines still fill the display cases. The Chinese Herbalist Shop is full of real, original herbs. Not-so-fresh cookies and crackers are still in their jars in the dry goods store, and the assay office overflows with core samples, cupels, crucibles and scales. A red-light district, bank, union hall, saloons, and much more are all part of Hell Roarin’ Gulch.
Orphan Girl Underground Mine Tours
You won’t have a problem finding the Orphan Girl Mine on the World Museum of Mining property— just look up. The old “gallows” style headframe juts 100 feet into the air. In fact, headframes dot the sky just about anywhere you look in the city of Butte. A headframe was more than a tower of steel, it allowed miners and their tools to be lowered into the mineshaft. During Butte’s mining boom, thousands of men worked in the veins below the city. An underground tour of the Orphan Girl Mine gives a glimpse of what hard rock mining might have been like then—and may just be the most realistic underground mine tour that you will ever take! No illuminated, paved tunnel here. Instead, you’ll be outfitted with a miner’s hard hat, cap lamp, and battery belts (they weigh more than you think). Visitors’ cap lamps are the main source of light underground, so be prepared to navigate your way in dim lighting on an uneven soggy surface. Good walking shoes and light jackets are recommended. The mine workings are not ADA compliant.
Most of the tour guides are retired miners, so as you walk the 65 feet down into the once 3,200-foot deep Orphan Girl, you will hear their real stories and the history of the mine. It gets a little spooky when everyone switches off their battery lights and all you’re left with is the glow of a candle. Now imagine miners working like that for hours on end!
The Orphan Girl produced over 7.5 million ounces of silver between 1875 and 1956. Sounds like a lot, but it’s actually only about one percent of all the silver ever produced in the entire district. The Orphan Girl got her name because, compared to many of the other mines of the day, it is relatively isolated on the western side of the Butte mining district. There is also an Orphan Boy Mine. The Orphan Girl was a popular place to work because it was usually a cool 60 degrees. Temperatures in other nearby underground mines often exceeded 100 degrees!
After the underground tour, your guide will show you around the mine yard and explain the use of the machinery and the various jobs that miners held. Not everyone worked underground. There were also blacksmiths, boilermakers, drymen and hoisting engineers. If you did work underground, you might have started your career “running slimes,” a mixture of processed rock used to fill the stopes that had been mined. Another important job was being a member of a “rope gang.” These were actually steel cables and not ropes that were the lifelines to working underground.
More than 60 major exhibits and dozens of smaller items are scattered about the Orphan Girl mine yard. Looking at all this rusty gold gives you a good feel for the kinds of equipment used from the 1860s through the 1970s. These are not models, they are the real thing—stamp mill, ore trucks, donkey engines, smelter cars and much more.
Before or after your guided tour, take a look at the Orphan Girl Hoist/Engine House in the Underground Mining Exhibit. Real mining equipment is displayed in a simulated underground mine to explain each of the steps in the mining process. And the original photos that line the walls reveal the hard life and times of a hard rock miner.
Research and Education
Although the complete archives are not on public display, the World Museum of Mining is a resource to authors and the film industry for historical and technical research. If you’re looking for a special souvenir, just ask—more than 7,000 photos can be purchased. The museum has an extensive collection of maps, diaries, company daybooks, payroll records, engineering diagrams, and more that are available for research purposes. The museum offers summer camps for kids, too, so young miners can have an opportunity to learn through tours, crafts and hands-on experiments.
Montana Tech Mineral Museum
Adjacent to the World Museum of Mining is the campus of Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Its mineral museum is free and open to the public, and exhibits about 1,300 specimens from Montana and around the world. This museum is definitely worth a stop, even if you’re not a rockhound. After all, Montana’s nickname is the Treasure State, so you know you’re going to see a lot of prized specimens! The Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Earthquake Studies office is located in the Mineral Museum. Watch the seismic activity from Montana and around the world as it is recorded and printed on the seismographs.
One of the highlights in the Mineral Museum is the Highland Centennial Gold Nugget weighing 27.5 troy ounces. The nugget got its name because it was found in the Highland Mountains south of Butte in 1989. The nugget is believed to be the seventh largest gold nugget found in Montana. A 400-pound smoky quartz crystal, referred to as “Big Daddy,” was unearthed just east of Butte. Because of Montana’s long tradition of mining, you’ll see impressive examples of colorful bornite, garnet, azurite, agate, sapphires and more. If you want to take a sample home, you’ll find small pieces for sale in the gift shop. There’s also a good selection of books.
Kids especially love the museum’s display of fluorescent minerals. Cases are in a separate room and are illuminated in both long and short wavelength ultraviolet light. It’s amazing how ordinary-looking minerals radiate extraordinary vibrant shades of pink, orange and blue when exposed to ultraviolet light. You won’t believe how halite (salt) changes from white to red. It’s just plain fun in the Fluorescent Room surrounded by a crazy glowing rainbow of rocks!
Visiting the World Museum of Mining and Montana Tech Mineral Museum is a memorable experience for the whole family, and will probably whet your appetite to find your own precious metals. You can do that pretty easily in Montana. Gold panning on National Forest lands does not require a permit. And who knows—you might just find a gold nugget missed by the old-timers!
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith helps businesses get found on the Internet in multiple ways. She can be reached at GoldRushWebMarketing.com.
IF YOU GO:
The World Museum of Mining
155 Museum Way
Butte, Montana 59703
Open daily, April to October from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: adults, $8.50; seniors, $7.50; students (13-18), $6, children (5-12), $3, under 5, free
Underground Mine Tours
Daily at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 and 3 p.m.
Fee: adults, $12; seniors, $10; students, $8, children, $5. Not recommended for children under 5 and not ADA compliant.
Montana Tech Mineral Museum
Montana Tech Campus
1300 West Park St.
Butte, Montana 59701
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, June 15 to Sept. 15
Winter hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays
Admission free; donations appreciated n
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.