May 2009

Economic Geology

Butte, Montana (Part 2)

By R. J. Cathro

“Litigation usually frequented the great American mining centers, usually eroding profits and sometimes paralyzing operations. What happened at Butte, though, seemed to be in a class by itself. Before the carnival of litigation had run its course from 1896 to 1906, tens of millions of dollars worth of mining properties would shut down; thousands of employees would lose their income; the camp would stare into the abyss of outright warfare; and the Amalgamated trust itself would face imminent disaster. … With its hundreds of rich claims and its many well-established mine owners, the sprawling Butte district staged the greatest of all legal-political battles in the history of western mining. The final result, though hard won, was preordained: consolidation under one central management.”

~Malone, 1981


The history of Butte has resulted in an extensive bibliography. Most of that has focused on the Battle of Butte between 1896 and 1906, when the development and consolidation of the camp was marked by corruption, disagreements, threats, intimidation, legal challenges, the buying of judges and elected politicians, fraud, theft, murder and political intrigue. That story has been well summarized by historians such as Joralemon (1934), Glasscock (1935), Marcosson (1957), Greever (1963), and Malone (1981), and in the autobiography of Sales (1964), and is beyond the scope of this series.

George Hearst and James Haggin were so impressed by the copper potential of the strong vein zone that Marcus Daly showed them that the Hearst Syndicate purchased the Anaconda claim from Daly for what he had paid and agreed to finance its development. They also gave him a carried 25 per cent interest (in effect making him an equal fourth partner in the syndicate), and appointed him general manager. The initial interests were Hearst, 39 per cent; Haggin, 26 per cent; Daly, 25 per cent; and Lloyd Tevis (who wasn’t as enthusiastic), 10 per cent. This happened in spite of efforts by William Clark to discredit Daly with the syndicate, as he had tried to do earlier when Daly bought the Alice mine for the Walkers. Clark was also purported to have said some disparaging things about Haggin’s heritage because of his given names, James Ben Ali, which was bizarre because Haggin’s pedigree was better than Clark’s. Haggin’s father was a successful lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, while his mother was the daughter of a Christian Turk with a medical practice in Philadelphia, who had been forced to move to England to study medicine because of his religion. These attacks probably contributed to the long feud between Daly and Clark. When Clark wrote his memoirs 50 years later, he never mentioned Daly by name, referring to him only as “a representative of the Walkers.”

Daly sank a production-size shaft at a site reportedly selected by Hearst and drove crosscuts 90 to 150 metres long on levels 30 metres apart. Nothing but a little oxidized silver ore with some copper stain was found initially, but it was enough to justify leasing the nearby Dexter mill from Clark. At a depth of 30 metres, where the silver started to disappear, a narrow seam of chacocite, which was called ‘copper glance’ by prospectors, was intersected. Chalcocite is the richest copper sulphide mineral, containing almost 80 per cent copper by weight compared with up to 35 per cent for chalcopyrite and about 50 per cent for bornite. This mineral had seldom been seen before in large amounts anywhere. The chalcocite vein was still narrow at the 61 metre level, but a year later, at a depth of about 90 metres, it had widened to 1.5 metres. On the next level, it widened to 15 metres and was between 15 and 30 metres thick when the shaft reached the 180 metre level in the spring of 1883. It had become the largest chalcocite deposit the world had ever seen. Encouraged by the good results, Daly began to purchase adjacent claims, including the St. Lawrence and Neversweat along strike, just as Hearst had done at Homestake in order to avoid legal problems caused by the Apex Law (see CIM Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 6, page 113, September/October 2008).

The initial ore produced from the Anaconda mine averaged 12 per cent copper and up to $30 per ton in silver, and some zones ran from 45 to 55 per cent copper. During 1882-84, 37,600 tonnes were shipped to a smelter at Swansea, Wales. In 1883, construction of a smelter and a new town named Anaconda began at Warm Springs, 42 kiolmetres west of Butte, where there was abundant water. The smelter initially treated ore averaging 8 to 10 per cent copper. A silver smelter was added later and the tracks of the Great Northern Railway reached the smelter in 1887.  In 1892, the Anaconda operation produced 50,800 tonnes (100 million pounds) of copper, which made it the largest copper mine in the United States. Daly invested heavily in new mines, acquired coal lands and a timber supply, established banks, built power plants and started an irrigation system, quickly establishing Anaconda as one of the largest copper producers in the world. By the early 1890s, the syndicate was smelting 3,000 tonnes per day and consuming 75,000 tonnes of coal and 15 million board feet of lumber per year from company-owned operations. Although Anaconda dwarfed other large mining operations in the camp, including Clark’s, the structural geology of the camp, which consisted of a huge stockwork of countless small intersecting veins, meant that there were scores of small independent mines operating on single claims.

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