Montana town with Irish history likely to buck Republican trend
America Letter: Butte is one of several small urban centres across state with liberal streak
19th-century image of the main street in Butte, Montana: no longer a thriving industrial centre. Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group
Two hours’ drive west of Yellowstone National Park, the old, dusty mining town of Butte, Montana, edges into view. Nestled in the valleys amid the Rocky Mountains, Butte is one of the oldest towns in the American West.
On one side of the town, a 27m (90-foot) statue of Mary – “Our Lady of the Rockies” – looks down from a height of 1,000m (3,500 feet) to the streets below and the warren of mining tunnels located underneath.
To the west, a statue of Marcus Daly, one of the area’s most famous residents, surveys the streets that lie before him, donning a Covid mask for the times that are in it.
Daly was one of thousands of Irish who emigrated to this region of the American West in the 19th century.
Born near Ballyjamesduff in Cavan, he sailed to America in the 1850s, landing in New York and making his way to California and then on to Nevada. While working in Salt Lake City, he was sent to Butte by his employers to investigate mining prospects. He eventually formed the Anaconda Copper Company, after a huge store of copper ore was found beneath the silver at Butte.
Daly, who had grown up in poverty at home, made a fortune, and sent word to any Irish immigrant who wanted a job that work was plentiful in Butte. The Irish came in their thousands. By 1900 it is estimated that a quarter of Butte’s population was Irish-born.
Another famous son of Butte is Thomas Francis Meagher. A leading Young Irelander who took part in the 1848 rebellion, he was tried for treason in Dublin and exiled to Australia. Following an audacious escape from Tasmania he was smuggled into New York.
He went on to lead the Irish Brigade – also known as the “fighting 69th” – on the Union side in the American civil war. President Andrew Johnson later appointed him as territorial director for Montana, then a new frontier. He died suddenly after falling overboard on a steamboat in the Missouri river at the age of 44. His body was never recovered. A statue of a horseback Meagher stands outside Montana’s state capitol in nearby Helena.
Today, Butte is not the thriving industrial centre it once was when it was the largest town between the Mississippi river and the west coast. But it oozes charm and authenticity, the old store fronts and wide streets offering a door into the past.
As is the case with many towns across the US, business is slow and visitors have mostly stayed away due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Hummingbird Café is one of the few establishments open, having reopened for limited in-person dining last month. On this late-summer lunchtime, business is slow but steady. The young waitress – Megan Colleen McPherson as she proudly tells me – is one of the many locals with Irish roots.
Signs of the town’s Irish heritage are everywhere – from Delaney’s restaurant to the Dublin bar and Cavanaugh’s County Celtic store. The enticing Second Edition bookstore on Montana Street has an impressive Ireland section. Its collection ranges from first editions of Seamus Heaney poetry and political biographies to a 1929 edition of “O’Malley of Shanganagh” a popular novel of the 1920s by Irish-American Donn Byrne.
At the edge of the town, St Patrick’s Cemetery offers a moving reminder of the many Irish people who made Butte their home. Mooney, Brennan, Murphy – the names on the headstones tell the emigrant story in a poignant way.
Montana has long been viewed as Republican territory. But Butte is one of several small cities scattered around the state with a liberal streak. While Donald Trump won Montana in 2016 with 69 per cent of the vote, Hillary Clinton won Silver Bow County, where Butte is located, with 53 per cent of the vote compared to Trump’s 39 per cent.
Two-term governor Steve Bullock, a popular moderate Democrat, is taking on the incumbent Republican Steve Daines. With Republicans under pressure to keep their current majority in the Senate, the Montana race promises to be one of the most closely watched in the country.
Though Montanans mostly vote Republican in presidential races, the state has chosen Democrats in gubernatorial and Senate contests in the past. Democrats will be hoping that this independent streak will continue and deliver for them in November.