Centerville, Butte, MT
A Short History of the Centerville Neighborhood
Centerville began in 1877 as a mining camp just North of Butte city limits. As the Anaconda Copper Mining Company grew to control all nearby mining sites--including the now mile-deep Mountain Consolidated Mine--small plots of land were leased to miners to live in within walking distance to the mine sites that would employ them. These early residents understood that Centerville's residential plots of land were temporary as the company would undoubtedly expand mineral extraction across the hill, demolishing all company-owned homes in the process. Due to the understanding that mineral exploitation was priority and that the company homes were temporary, many early Centerville residents neglected much needed repairs on homes and substandard living conditions were widely accepted.
While the company's mines in Centerville continued to grow, the relocation of the neighborhood never did occur. By 1900, dozens of new homes were built beside the increasingly decrepit miner's cabins, many small businesses moved in and Centerville became known as a working class neighborhood shared between two major ethnic identities--the Irish and the Cornish.
While Irish and Cornish residents shared the geographic location of Centerville, they rarely shared much else. Conflicts between the two ethnic groups provided the neighborhood with two of everything. There were two schools, two churches, two barbershops, two bakers, two paint stores, two grocers, and most notably--two fraternal halls.
Centerville's Sons of St. George Hall provided significant benefits and a safety net to Cornish families coping with the injuries, diseases and deaths caused by dangerous work in the underground mines. The Irish counterpart to St. George’s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, paid out over $30,000 in sick and death benefits to underground miners and their families from 1885 to 1911. Despite their differences, the Irish and Cornish communities of Centerville were united by the common challenge to survive each shift below ground and return home alive.
Throughout the next several decades, Centerville merged with Butte properly, receiving complete water and sewer services and the dignity of inclusion within the city. Alongside Centerville, several other ethic enclaves grew frenetically across the hill. There was a neighborhood site for nearly every immigrant population in Butte. Aside from the Irish and Cornish there were Scottish, Italian, Finns, Norwegian, Swedish, Danes, Swiss, Lebanese, French, Chinese, Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Germans, Mexicans, Austrians, Greeks, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish populations arriving in Butte by the hundreds. The early geography of Butte's surface noted the Anaconda Company's wide reaching property lines--but also the boundaries between Butte's many miniature nations.
The layout of these ethic neighborhoods across the landscape allowed residents to refer to the city not as Butte, Montana, but as "Butte, America", but for the Anaconda Company, it was always better understood as "The Richest Hill on Earth". The 1950's brought new surface mining practices and gave birth to the Berkeley Pit--one of the nation's largest open pit mines. Heavy excavation machinery, 300 ton haul trucks, and dynamite put an overwhelming amount of Butte's underground miners and above ground merchants out of work. Butte's population began its steady decline even as the Pit continued to expand. Before 1960, the Meaderville, McQueen, and East Butte ethnic neighborhoods had been completely consumed by the Berkeley Pit. Homes were either hauled out and relocated or buried beneath the mine's waste rock expanse. It was during this time that Centerville residents wondered again if they would be displaced my mining interests.
While the Anaconda Company's hunger for copper in Butte was strong--it was small compared for copper in Chile. In 1971, when Salvador Allende reclaimed control of Chile's Chuquicamata mine from Anaconda, the company lost two-thirds of its copper production. All proposed expansion projects in the Berkeley Pit were abandoned and Centerville was spared.
Centerville, like many other neighborhoods in Butte watched as Butte's mining city identity collapsed—if younger miners wanted to stay in Butte they would have to find new work. The city's decline of commercial and industrial activity left Centerville increasingly quiet. The industry's rapid expansion and sudden collapse caused a major geographic divide. Without investment, much of Butte's Northern Hill was abandoned for either life in another city or a new life on the opposite side of the valley.
Somehow, the once temporary town site of Centerville survived to become the last living enclave of its kind. A number of today's Centerville residents will explain that they live in the same home they were raised in, and how this home survived the appetite of the copper mine, and how all of it--including the mineral rights--belong to them now. The problem is now--the decades between the city's investment in the neighborhood has left Centerville in a state of steady decay.
In 2009, The EPA began the reclamation process across the Mountain Consolidated mine yard--mounds of waste rock were capped with paper pulp, soil, and seed to create a network of new recreational walking paths and two major parking lots. During the planning process, residents of Centerville, several being former MT Con. miners themselves were invited by the EPA to step out onto the waste rock expanse and envision a park for themselves. Members of the neighborhood were asked to comment on the proposed changes to site and to suggest what they would like to see. Two years later, the project was still in progress, and while over five million dollars had been invested in Centerville's former mile-deep mine site, no help came for the neighborhood itself. In March 2011, several Centerville residents organized a neighborhood meeting in the Centerville Volunteer Fire Hall to call an end to the neglect. Together they discussed how severe things were becoming and how they might reach out for help. They reached out to several local non-profits to come and sit in as guests in their monthly meetings, to offer them advice--and if possible, support.
The Imagine Butte Collaborative which includes Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Montana & The National Affordable Housing Network began working alongside the Centerville neighborhood earlier this year, writing grants specifically for neighborhood stabilization. After being awarded one in July —for 2.14 million dollars—the housing groups have begun the process of transforming several of Centerville’s long-standing vacant lots into a network of affordable passive solar homes. While these new homes are welcomed by residents of Centerville, the recent attention to the neighborhood has attracted the question—how will these changes impact Centerville in the long term?
One undeniable tension around new investments in Centerville is the growing concern of local historic preservation interests. Those who understand Centerville as the rich ethnic enclave of the early 1900’s worry that this more future-oriented agenda to be a considerable threat to the neighborhood’s historic integrity.
Earlier this summer, while the housing groups were working to prepare historically compatible house plans based on existing homes in the neighborhood, local historic preservation advocates hosted an evening walking tour through Centerville’s streets to educate the public on the importance of prioritizing at-risk architectural details on the exteriors of historic homes. At the moment, Butte’s most active debate is situated between these interpretations of the built environment. Is it an artifact or adequate shelter? The ongoing battle for the preservation of Butte’s historic identity has taken priority over nearly all new initiatives. The demolition of vacant homes—even if they are past the point of repair—has been effectively banned within Butte city limits as a means of preserving the city’s historic remains. Butte’s historic preservation groups work closely and aggressively with legal experts, property management companies, and state officials to protect all commercial, and residential structures as part of the larger ‘historic viewshed’.
Preservationists that work to protect such decrepit houses within Uptown neighborhoods argue that the declining properties ought to be made available for history-loving investors arriving to Butte and looking for a renovation project. Opponents to this program will argue that such widespread blight will deter any new investors. Meanwhile declining neighborhoods must cope with record low property values and the pattern of uninhabitable vacancies being inhabited by anyone who knows how to break in.
Uptown Butte’s affordable historic rental homes are often substandard and even unsafe—many homes on the hill still contain layers of the black dust from Butte’s former smelter striped skies. Unless properly retrofitted and weatherized, Butte’s historic homes can also become too expensive for occupants to heat properly in Butte’s negative degree winters.
While this widespread historic preservation program is genuinely interested in preserving Butte’s past as an illustrious and diverse mining city—these preservation practices are largely seen as being in direct conflict with Butte’s future, and local dialog surrounding the preservation program often turns into a larger discussion of how the tax dollar is best spent in light of Butte’s economic inequalities.