The Rich History of the Anaconda Copper Mine

The Anaconda Copper Mine was the true epitome of an Irish immigrant’s American dream coming to life. Its creator, Marcus Daly, not only built a copper industry that was incomparable to others at the time, but he also provided the opportunity for thousands of Irish immigrants to come to the West with the promise of a stable job and a strong community. His success created the potential for many American dreams to follow.

Within months of its creation, the Anaconda Copper Mine, located near Butte, Montana, was a leading producer of copper across the entire North American continent. And it all began with one Irishman, Marcus Daly. Having advanced in the mining business for over two decades, Daly bought the Anaconda Silver Mine in 1881, with the help of the Haggin-Hearst-Tevin organization. When his workers discovered a rich vein of copper several months later, the other owners weren’t thrilled—there weren’t the resources to easily treat the copper, and no one knew if this discovery could grow to compete with the copper plants in the Midwest. Even so, Daly kept hope. He bought the properties from his partners and switched the mine to focus only on copper; the company quickly became very prosperous. Daly continued to buy mines in the surrounding area of Butte and to incorporate them into the Anaconda Copper Mining Company throughout the 1890s. By 1895, the prosperity had spread; in a report to British investors, mining expert Hamilton Smith stated that the mine could produce more copper than any other company, at a fraction of the cost.

Much of the surrounding landscape and population of Butte, Montana was shaped by the incredible success of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. Timber proved critical to the success of the mining business, and Daly bought and utilized the Montana forests in order to run his mine. Furthermore, Daly’s Irish heritage and promise of a stable mining company drew thousands of Irishmen to Butte to work in his mines. Historian David M. Emmons has said, “By 1900, there were approximately 12,000 immigrant and second-generation Irish in a total Silver Bow County (Butte) population of 47,365. Thus, 25 percent of the residents . . . were either Irish-born or the children of Irish-born.” Irishmen came to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company because of the relationships Daly built with his workers there. These relationships started the moment applicants applied directly to him, and they continued as he met workers’ families and would even personally train young men in the work. The mines were incredibly prosperous for both owner and workers, and with the promise of employers who respected their people, the Irish had clear incentives to flood to Butte.

Although not much remains of the Anaconda Copper Mine beyond abandoned mine shafts and railroad tracks, it is worth the trip through Butte to see the residue of a true American dream that played such a heavy role in shaping Montana economy, environment, and population in the late 1800s.