Richard Gibson, Butte’s Accidental Historian

by AARON PARRETT

The great Irish writer James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin were suddenly to vanish off the face of the earth, the Irish could rebuild the city from his descriptions of it in his novel Ulysses.

I don’t know about Dublin, but it certainly seems possible that if someone ever took a notion to rebuild Butte and restore that city to the glory it sported in its architectural prime, Richard Gibson’s book Lost Butte would be the natural place to start.

Lost Butte tells the story of Butte in a fascinating way: Gibson starts with what isn’t even there; that is, all the beautiful and interesting buildings that have, over the years, succumbed to fire, or Urban Renewal, or plain old neglect.

In telling the story of what has disappeared, Gibson gives an account of “lost” history, but more importantly, of what has remained: Butte’s people and their enduring memory for what can’t be erased or razed.

Richard Gibson describes himself as an “accidental” historian. “I’m a geologist,” he said. “I sort of fell into the history stuff by chance.” How he ended up in Butte was a stroke of luck.

It so happens that Indiana University (where Gibson attended graduate school in geology) runs a field station in the Tobacco Root Mountains near Cardwell. “For seventeen years, every summer I would come out and teach classes in making maps, and so I knew about Butte a little bit through that.”

Gibson’s career had mainly been in petroleum geology, the major part of which he spent in Texas after the 1975 oil boom. Prior to his stint in Houston, though, Gibson’s first geology job was unusual and interesting: analyzing the geology of kidney stones.

“I was born to be a geologist,” he said. “I knew it at an early age. I think 7th grade, I knew for sure. I had always collected rocks and was fascinated by the subject.” (It turns out that kidney stones are composed mainly of calcium phosphates and calcium oxalates, in case you wondered.)

In 1989 the Berlin wall came down, and yet another unique and unusual opportunity came his way: the new post-Soviet nation of Russia opened its territory to oil exploration proposals, and because Gibson knew that the USGS had geological and geophysical maps of Russia made by the Soviets in the 1970s using magnetic field data, he would be able to analyze those maps and report the best places to find oil.

“What’s most fun for me is learning things, finding stuff out,” Gibson explained. “So, that was really a fun time in my life.”

In 2003, Gibson decided to choose a more or less permanent base in the West, and his choice came down to Butte or Denver. The difference in cost of living was the deciding factor.

“I knew the area in a general sense from my time at the Indiana U. Field Station, and in 1974 I had helped start the Tobacco Root Geological Society,” Gibson said. “That’s actually one of the accomplishments I am most proud of, starting that society. Every year we give away $7,000 to $9,000 in scholarships to geology students.”

Having chosen Butte, he picked out a house at the apex of the uptown, on Quartz.

“I figured I needed to just buy a house in Butte and settle in.” But since his Montana connections had largely been the field office out of Cardwell, he didn’t know many people in Butte.

He began volunteering at the World Museum of Mining, giving modest 20-minute talks on the geology of the Butte Hill, and the history of mining in the region.

“That led into the historic preservation interest,” he said, “and that led into the Mai Wah Building and the Mai Wah Society.” (The Mai Wah Society documents the history of Asian people in Butte and Montana).

Along the way, Gibson studied the history of the town, the physical changes it experienced as a result of the Berkeley Pit opening, and gradually he became one of the resident experts on Butte.

“I really have fallen in love with its history and the people. Butte was a great discovery for me.”

What led to writing Lost Butte was essentially the accumulation of all his Butte knowledge. “I decided that if I were going to be doing the historical tours and giving the talks at the Museum, I needed to know the details of the history behind the areas, and so I learned—much of it from books, but probably as much from the people I talked to.”

One thing led to another—a pattern of development that seems to mark Gibson’s life—and the next thing he knew, he had the makings of a book that told the story of Butte by way of the buildings that had given way to “progress,” or at least to major changes to the industrial landscape of Butte.

Lately Butte has made it onto the national map for two vastly different claims to fame: on the one hand, there’s the Folk Festival, now in its 10th year.

“The Folk Festival has been a great thing for Butte, and for Montana,” he said. “I’ve observed two general categories people fall into at the festival: there’s the ‘folk festival people;’ that is, the people who are there because of the festival, and they come from all over the country and become enamored with Butte. But the other category is all the people from Montana who come to the festival and discover Butte. So many Montanans pass through on the interstate and never get off the highway. They see the pit and maybe judge the town on that basis, but they never stop in Butte and go discover the uptown. But then they come for the festival, see the uptown, and say, ‘wow! I had no idea!’”

On the other hand, there’s the Berkeley Pit, steadily filling with water, and every few years drawing national attention for killing unfortunate migrating birds who settle into its toxic pond.

“There’s a lot of anxiety at the notion the Pit will overflow and flood Butte,” Gibson said, “which is geologically impossible. There’s quite a bit of misinformation around.” Instead, he patiently explained, the water in the pit is rising, but will reach an equilibrium point with the water table long before it reaches the lip of the pit. “At that point, water will not be flowing into the pit, as it is now, but will reach a balance point with the existing water table.”

There is a danger of course that the water could flow from the pit into the water table, but that’s only one possibility. The larger point is that paranoia about the pit overflowing and flooding the flat is completely off the mark. “The plan is, and has been since 1994, for pumps to kick in 2020 and start sending the water through a treatment plant to remove the heavy metals, and then discharge it into the natural drainage of Silver Bow Creek.”

Gibson has now entered that hallowed pantheon of Butte “characters.” He walks everywhere, knows everyone, and has made lasting contributions to the historical preservation societies in Butte, such as the Archives and the Mai Wah Society.

He’s a regular at Quarry Brewing, where he meets regularly with other scientists and barstool historians to chat about Butte and geology and to win trivia contests. He’s also become one of Butte’s favorite people.

“One thing I have discovered about Butte is that it has a non-stop series of small-world stories,” Gibson said, a glint in his eye. “You have to be careful how you talk about people because everyone is someone’s cousin, or they used to work together, or something.”

After our morning chat, we left his place on Quartz, heading east across uptown Butte in search of some lunch. On the sidewalk on Granite Street, we encountered a bewildered looking elderly fellow who stopped us to ask if we could help him find a certain address on South Montana Street. I smiled, stepped aside, and let Gibson do the talking.

But I wanted to tell this poor lost soul that he must be the luckiest man in Butte, because of all the strangers he could have stopped to ask for directions, he literally found the best possible person for the job.

If you’re lost or in search of some obscure address in that town, there’s no one better to buttonhole and ask than Richard Gibson.

“What are you trying to find?” Gibson asked the man.

“Well, a doctor,” the fellow answered. “An allergist, actually.”

“Oh, right,” Dick responded. “I know who you’re looking for. He’s on South Montana. You’re on North Montana. Walk down a couple blocks to Broadway, and when you cross it, you’ll be on South Montana. That doctor’s office will be just another block down, on your left.”

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