The New Yellowstone Spinoff 1923 Showcases Montana’s Most Fascinating Town
Cover image: Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton and James Badge Dale as John Dutton Sr. of the Paramount+ series 1923. Photo Credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The world can’t get enough Yellowstone. The latest spinoff of Taylor Sheridan’s modern-West melodrama–American cable’s top show–goes back to 1923 to give deeper backstory on the Dutton ranching dynasty, with Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford in lead roles.
Okay, strong cast. For our money, though, the setting could be the star: when 1923 premieres on Dec. 18, viewers will glimpse some of the most storied streets in the West. The Montana town Butte, one of 1923’s main shooting locations, was shaped by a rowdy real-life saga. Judging by the series trailer, there will indeed be blood, but fiction will struggle to top the real history. And today, this city up on the Continental makes a fascinating wander for travelers.
Talking about Butte, it’s hard not to get sucked in deep. We’ll try.
Within often-bucolic Montana, Butte is just different: an industrial city, built around some of the world’s richest copper mines. Anaconda, just about 20 miles away, is the smaller but scrappy cousin, founded around a smelter built to process Butte’s copper.
Here’s the backstory. In the 1880s, a mining engineer named Marcus Daly figured out that a silver mine in an obscure Montana mining camp was actually a world-class copper mine. Daly built the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, in its day one of America’s most powerful corporations. Scores of copper mines turned Butte into “the Richest Hill on Earth.”
Miners flocked from around the world–particularly Daly’s native Ireland, but also from Serbia, Cornwall, Finland, China … all over the map. [In Wildsam’s guide to Western Montana, Butte journalist Kathleen McLaughlin notes that her forebears came directly to Butte from Europe. “In Ireland and Croatia, people knew they could find a working-class job they could live on here.”]
The resulting city ran around the clock, full of raucous taverns, opulent mansions, dueling newspapers, clanking street cars, buzzing supper clubs–the works. At various points Butte fostered a Black baseball team, Gaelic football and a middleweight title fight. Meanwhile, copper mines fueled some of America’s wildest capitalist rivalries. Marcus Daly squared off against arch-nemesis William Clark in the so-called “War of the Copper Kings,” a battle of bribes and chicanery to control Montana politics. Playboy mining magnate Augustus Heinze hatched financial schemes that just about crashed the American economy.
Butte in 1942, Lee Russell, Library of Congress
Relations between miners and their bosses–especially the mighty Anaconda Company–tended to be tense. Riots broke out in 1914, with the miners’ union hall blown to bits with dynamite and the National Guard occupying the city. In 1917, a colossal mine fire killed hundreds of workers, leading to a massive strike, the murder of union organizer Frank Little and a wave of violent suppression. In 1920, company goons opened fire on protesting miners in the “Anaconda Road Massacre,” and federal troops marched in again.
This atmosphere spawned some wild characters. Bill Dunne, Communist newspaper editor, who by legend typed his copy for the Butte Bulletin with a gun in his lap. Mary MacLane, teenage memoirist, who scandalized the nation with her strange musings on sex and religion. Billy Oates, a one-armed street enforcer noted for playing the bugle. And [on towards midcentury], the one and only Evel Knievel.
Yes, many a yarn. We haven’t even gotten to the Dimple Knees Sex Scandal! Luckily today’s Butte and its surroundings are a roamers’ dream–a place to put your own tale together.
WHERE TO GO
Butte’s historic core is a timewarp to a 1920s-ish city streetscape, full of vintage buildings and atmospheric back alleys. Walking Uptown, you can see why Yellowstone chose to shoot here, and how the city inspired Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel Red Harvest. [The Coen Brothers drew on Red Harvest for Miller’s Crossing and other films.]
Some days, Uptown Butte feels like it should be the coolest neighborhood in America. Other days, it’s pretty damn quiet. But settle in and you’ll find not only historic fascination but Butte’s fierce pride and community spirit. ORO FINO COFFEE is a good check-in to catch on to a burgeoning local art scene and on-going conversations around environmental recovery. HEADFRAME SPIRITS distills local history into its artisan spirit. The HUMMINGBIRD CAFE extends a big Butte welcome for breakfast. THE COPPER KING MANSION, once William Clark’s humble abode, provides a glimpse into Gilded Age high life. The tours from OLD BUTTE HISTORICAL ADVENTURES are truly worth it, opening doors to the amazingly preserved ROOKWOOD SPEAKEASY and the dank, dungeon-like old City Jail.
Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress
HOTEL FINLEN dates to the 1920s. Definitely where a visiting Sam Spade would stay.
The “local industrial history museum” is a mixed-bag genre for sure, but do not sleep on THE WORLD MUSEUM OF MINING, off at the edge of town. In addition to a tight collection of exhibits above ground, the subterranean tour into the old Orphan Girl tunnels, maybe the last accessible shaft of Butte’s copper mines, gives an unforgettable glimpse of the reality of working in deepest darkness.
Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress
FOOD & DRINK
LYDIA’S SUPPER CLUB is one of the last surviving vestiges of a once-booming, Mad Men-era red-sauce supper club circuit. Absolute must: find your way to MR. HOT DOGS, where lunch feels like a stop in the strangest, best Italian grandparents’ living room. PEKIN NOODLE HOUSE claims to be the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the country. To truly do it Butte style, however, the stop is PORK CHOP JOHN’S, century-old purveyor of a fried pork-chop sandwich that people drive hours to get. [The FREEWAY TAVERN makes a mean version, too.] A pint at MALONEY’S is probably mandatory.
1923 reportedly also shot in ANACONDA, MT, just 20 miles up the road and, in some sense, Butte’s offspring. [Although … don’t say that to someone from Anaconda. There’s a, uh, rivalry.] Marcus Daly established Anaconda as center for smelting, processing and shipping Butte copper, and the smaller town is full of intriguing architectural corners. The CLUB MODERNE preserves stylish Art Deco design lines as does the remarkable WASHOE THEATRE. The HEARST FREE LIBRARY dates to 1898, funded by Phoebe Hearst, of the mining-and-media empire Hearsts.
WHAT TO KNOW
The author of this piece, Wildsam managing editor Zach Dundas, collaborates on the podcast Death in the West: season one is all about Butte. The acclaimed podcast Richest Hill explores Butte’s complex environmental legacies. The band Dublin Gulch keeps the city’s freewheeling Irish musical tradition going strong. And this is one of the rare cities where “be sure to visit the archive” is a viable tip: Butte-Silver Bow is a Montana and national treasure of historic curation.