Butte has been a mining town since its creation in the late 19th century, and at first only gold and silver were mined in the area. However, the advent of electricity caused a soaring demand for copper, which was abundant in the area. The small town soon became one of the most prosperous cities in the country, especially after World War I and was often called "the Richest Hill on Earth". It is estimated that a third of all copper produced in the US in the late 19th century and early 20th century came from Butte. The city also attracted immigrants looking for work, especially from Ireland and China. The legacy of the immigrants lives on in the form of the pasty - a sort of hand-held meat pie (originally of Cornish origin) which was popularized by mine workers who needed something easy to eat in the mines.
The influx of miners gave Butte the reputation as wide-open town where any vice was obtainable. The city's famous saloon and red-light district, called the "Line", was centered on Wyoming Street where the elegant bordellos included the famous Dumas Brothel, regarded as the longest-running house of prostitution in the U.S. In the brick alley behind the brothel was the equally famous Venus Alley, where women plied their trade in small cubicles called "cribs". The red-light district brought miners and other men from all over the region and was openly tolerated by city officials until the 1920s as one of the last such urban districts in the U.S. The Dumas Brothel is now operated as a museum to Butte's rougher days.
In 1899, Standard Oil formed the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company. Not long after, the company changed its name to Anaconda Mining Company. The company engaged in questionable business practices, and at one point they even resorted to gunning down strikers in the Anaconda Road Massacre. In the 1920s, it was the fourth largest company in the world, and had a virtual monopoly over the mines in and around Butte. The prosperity continued up to the 1950s, when the Anaconda company switched its focus from the costly and dangerous practice of underground mining to open pit and strip mining. This marked the beginning of the end for the boom times in Butte.
Thousands of homes were destroyed to build the Berkeley Pit, which opened in 1955. At the time, it was the largest truck-operated open pit copper mine in the United States. Other strip mines were built in the area, a few of which are still operational. In 1977 the ARCO company purchased Anaconda Mining, and only three years later started shutting down mines. In 1982, all mining in the Berkeley Pit was suspended. The water pumps at the bottom of the pit were also shut down, which resulted in heavily acidic water filling up the pit. Only two years later the pit was classified as a Superfund environmental hazard site. Meanwhile, the acidic water continued to rise at an alarming rate. It was not until the 1990s that serious efforts to clean up the Berkeley Pit began. The situation gained even more attention after 342 migrating geese picked the Berkeley Pit water as a resting point, which would turn out to be their last. However, in November 2003 the Horseshoe Bend treatment facility went online and began treating and diverting some water that would have flowed into the pit. Ironically, the Berkeley Pit is also one of the city's biggest tourist attractions.
Today, Butte is a shadow of its former self. Most of the mine shafts still stand and the city still contains many old buildings from the boom times. The city now relies on the remnants of the mining industry, tourism, and services. Many areas of the city, especially the older areas near the mines, show signs of neglect and urban decay. The area around the city is also an environmental issue. Lead and arsenic contaminate the soil, and for a period of time in the 1990s the tap water was unsafe to drink.
As of the census of 2000, there are 33,892 people, 14,135 households, and 8,735 families residing in Butte. The population density is 18.3/km² (47.3/mi²). There are 15,833 housing units at an average density of 8.5 persons/km² (22.1 persons/mi²). The racial makeup of Butte is 95.38% White, 0.16% African American, 1.99% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 0.59% from other races, and 1.39% from two or more races. 2.74% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 14,135 households out of which 27.9% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 47.7% are married couples living together, 10.5% have a woman whose husband does not live with her, and 38.2% are non-families. 32.8% of all households are made up of individuals and 13.8% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.32 and the average family size is 2.97.
In Butte the population is spread out with 23.7% under the age of 18, 9.6% from 18 to 24, 26.7% from 25 to 44, 23.9% from 45 to 64, and 16.1% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 39 years. For every 100 females there are 97.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 96.2 males.
The median income for a household in Butte is $30,516, and the median income for a family is $40,186. Males have a median income of $31,409 versus $21,626 for females. The per capita income for Butte is $17,068. 15.0% of the population and 10.7% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 19.2% are under the age of 18 and 9.0% are 65 or older.