Public Health and Culture in Butte – Pt. 2

Many of Butte’s citizens refused to obey authorities’ orders, and much of that attitude stemmed from the city’s unique history and settlement. Most of Butte’s residents depended upon the mining industry, which followed cyclical “boom and bust” periods and was semi-permanent. Mine shutdowns, work accidents, and labor union disputes made miners an incredibly transient population made creating a citywide sense of community difficult. Butte became a city overnight, and its swift development and transitory state ensured that the progressive reforms that took place in similar-sized cities did not happen in Butte. Butte had a reputation as one of the roughest and most dangerous towns in the west. Drinking, gambling, and prostitution were common, and officials were often lax in enforcing laws that regulated such vices. Therefore, regulations aimed at limiting citizens’ access to regular businesses were not popular with the people of Butte.[1]

            Saloons and pool halls were responsible for most public health violations during the pandemic. The Board of Health waged a constant battle with saloon proprietors to keep the facilities closed or limit patrons’ access. On October 17, 1918, Butte police arrested 23 men for congregating in pool hall the Board’s orders had closed. In order to help saloons stay in business, but limit contact between patrons, the Board ruled on October 22, “no drinks be sold over the Bar. Package goods may be sold and carried away, no liquor consumed on the premises.”[2] The violations continued, though. Police arrested saloon proprietor Thomas Connolly on October 25 for “selling beer in glasses.”[3] On November 4 and 5, the Board ordered two saloons closed for multiple violations of the order.[4]

            Officials had such trouble with Butte’s saloons and pool halls because they were vital components of the city’s ethnic communities. Nearly one-quarter of Butte’s population Irish-born or the children of Irish immigrants, and Irish keepers ran almost 30 percent of the city’s saloons. The saloons served as the unofficial community halls of the male-dominated population. The Irish gathered in saloons not just to drink, but also to meet after their shifts in the mines, sing their nationalist songs, and commiserate on their rough treatment at the hands of the English. Other ethnic groups used their saloons in much the same way. The city’s German, Slavic, Italian, English, and Finnish communities all had their own saloons, each with a defining ethnic culture. Saloons often served as the unofficial banks and news outlets of their communities, and many even allowed patrons in at all hours to use the toilet and other facilities. One particular Butte saloon served as the contemporary equivalent of a soup kitchen and shelter. The “hobo house” offered beds, food, and even laundry facilities to homeless patrons. A 1919 County Board of Health study found that many of Butte’s saloons were cleaner and healthier than boarding houses. A number of Butte’s citizens depended upon their community’s saloon, and closure orders disrupted far more than their drinking activities. Due to language and cultural differences, many immigrants felt more comfortable visiting neighborhood saloons than official agencies for news, resources, and assistance. The Board struggled to enforce orders on saloons because they played such a vital role within Butte’s many ethnic communities.[5]

            The city’s religious leaders hotly protested the decision to allow saloons to remain open. Butte’s priests and reverends argued that if churches could not hold services, saloons should close. “Not only are all men equal before the law, but…all public dangers are equal before the law,” the Silver Bow Ministerial Administration protested. “Our institutions and national declarations stand for vital facts in the life of the people,” they declared.[6] Many of Butte’s residents found the prohibition of church functions nearly as grievous as saloon closure. By 1918, Butte had forty-seven churches, missions, and synagogues.  For many, churches were the center of the community. The churches baptized babies, educated children, performed marriages, and provided other social services and assistance to their members. The Catholic Church, especially, provided a sense of stability in their transitory mining world. Almost half of Butte’s citizens belonged to a Catholic parish, illustrating the influence the Church had within the city. Parish members and priests resented having their churches closed. It is unknown how many unlawful services took place and rites performed while bans were in place, but it is unlikely that these close-knit religious communities ceased meeting altogether to obey public health orders. Even small meetings allowed for the spread of influenza throughout the community.[7]

            Illness rendered hundreds of Butte’s citizens unable to work, which meant their families ran short of money for food, clothing, and other necessities. The prohibition on church activities mean to provide support, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, meant that many Butte residents needed to find resources and assistance elsewhere. Some may have turned to saloons, as official orders closed them later than churches. Once saloons closed, however, many families and individuals, especially linguistically and culturally isolated immigrants, had few options. Their close neighbors shared the same challenges and could offer little assistance. Orders to close churches and saloons certainly helped to limit the spread of the virus, but they also isolated a large number of Butte’s residents and prevented some from obtaining much needed assistance during a time of need.

            The Butte Board of Health was one of the most proactive and best organized in the state. However, even their greatest efforts could not stop or even slow the spread of influenza throughout the city. Mining had made Butte an incredibly diverse city, and a unified culture and sense of community did not exist. Butte’s citizens resented the Board’s interference with their daily lives, and chose not to follow many of the imposed regulations, which pushed the city’s mortality rate as high as anywhere else in the continental United States. Further, orders limiting residents’ access to usual sources of support and resources had a negative effect on how well Butte’s citizens were able to respond to and recover from influenza.


[1] Murphy, Mining Cultures, xiv, xvi; Emmons, The Butte Irish, 22, 71, 135.

[2] River Press (Fort Benton, MT), October 23, 1918, 8; Butte Health Officer, Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, October 22, 1918, Silver Bow Country Board of Health Collection, BSBPA, Butte, MT.

[3] “Saloonman Held for Selling Over a Bar,” Anaconda (MT) Standard, October 26, 1918.

[4] Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, November 4, 5, 1918, Silver Bow County Board of Health Collection.

[5] Emmons, The Butte Irish, 42-3; Murphy, Mining Cultures, 45, 48, 50.

[6] “Ministers Protest,” Anaconda (MT) Standard, October 11, 1918.

[7] Department of Health Minute Book, 1903-1923, October 11, 1918, Silver Bow Country Board of Health Collection; Murphy, Mining Cultures, 82; Emmons, The Butte Irish, 97.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s