A Pre-Missoula Peek at Montana: April 25-30, 2011

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

It was just a peek, indeed. We had three stops planned – Billings, Bozeman and Butte. We only made two of them.

Billings

We spent two nights in Billings, but I stayed close to home. The campground was lousy; a paved glorified parking lot with mostly permanents. Dot made it over to the Western Heritage Museum, where she learned the tale of Frederick Billings, a successful attorney who did a wealth of philanthropy for his native Vermont and never owned a home in Billings, Montana! He was lured west by the gold rush and founded one of the most significant law firms in early San Francisco. His connection to Montana was the Northern Pacific Railway. He was a 1/12th owner and its president. He saw it from 1869 to 1883 through failure to ultimate success, mostly resulting from his personal wealth and business acumen. He endowed both the Congregational Church and the first school in Billings and did enough to get his name attached to the town.

The other major thrust of the museum was the eradication/relocation of the many Native American tribes in the area. Dot reviewed as much as she could and left the museum in horror.

Butte

My knee was feeling up to it, so we decided to bypass Boseman. We arrived at the 2 Bar Lazy H Campground and found it to be a terraced field with many underdeveloped sites. The owner, either a widow or bachelor, greeted us cordially and sent us off to a site that worked just fine. It was even level! He lived in a small truck bed camper on stilts (no truck) with his dog. Under-endowed and under-priced, it was fine with us.

We had only planned on a two day stay, but the cold and clouds grew ominous in the middle of the second day. Snow started before we bedded down, and there were 4-5 inches on the ground by morning – so much that I had to exchange my sandals for closed shoes for a day! This was the first snow, other than a non-stick flurry, that we’d seen since early December 4, 2008. It wasn’t really bad; it was slushy and mostly melted quickly. But we decided to not try to get our rig off the hillside (we don’t have four wheel drive) and hung around for an extra day.

So we set about taking in the town. Among other things, we passed some beautiful houses, and we passed a brothel that closed in 1982 and was for sale.

World Mining Museum

You drive north up a hill to the main street in town. Then you turn west and drive up a second hill through the campus of the University of Minnesota College of Technology to the World Mining Museum. It’s a fascinating place made up of a patchwork of exhibits scattered through cluttered grounds Artifacts are everywhere. As you travel first through the museum in the administration building, you’ll find an impressive mineral exhibit and – of all things – a major dollhouse exhibit! Then you travel out the back door to a replicated mining town. If you pass through that and down a hill, you come to what is an actual mine entrance with a promised elevator trip down and tour. But the activity was nonexistent. Back up the hill is a huge excavator crane that leads you to another mine adit (good crossword puzzle word), where photographs and actual equipment demonstrate what he miners go through. Around another corner is a detailed scrub room, where miners prepped to enter the mine and rejuvenate themselves to go home. The rest is more of the same – fascinating but not a concise story. We’d go again if we had a tour guide!

Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit is a former Anaconda pit mine opened in 1955 and abandoned in 1982. During that period, approximately 1 billion tons of material were removed from the 1 x ½ mile pit, about 30% of it valuable ore, including gold, silver and other minerals along with the rich copper. At its demise, the pumps that stalled the infusion of ground water were turned off. As a result, the Pit is now more than half filled with toxic waste water not unlike battery acid. It is contaminated with the likes of cadmium, arsenic and other vicious contaminates. The water continues to rise and is growing close to ground water level, which could reverse the flow back out into waterways like the Clark Fork River.

The Pit is part of the largest Superfund project in the U.S. A new facility has been built at Horseshoe Bend (the white buildings) to stem the inflow of uncontaminated water and eventually to treat the water in the Pit.

Two chemists, Drs. Don and Andrea Stierle, have been studying the content pit for over a decade. They have been identifying organisms that are able to survive – thrive – in the hostile environment that may be antidotes to certain types of cancer. Working with numerous grants, they are encouraging “Big Pharma” to apply their power to the research effort.

It is absolutely incredible what we’ve innocently come upon on this trip. The Berkeley Pit certainly meets that category.

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