In the early 1900s the opulent Silver Bow Club was emblematic of the difference between the classes in Butte, which lead to the rise of radical labor movements.
In the first two decades of the 1900s, class conflict afflicted Butte as never before. Butte may have been the “Richest Hill on Earth,” but the riches of its copper mines were not shared equally. Miners got a wage to survive on. Mine owners, meanwhile, profited extravagantly, as did a small set of professionals and businessmen associated with the copper business.
The Silver Bow Club was where this affluent elite met. The Club met in a few different places in Butte before settling here, where it built an opulent, four-story building. There, in the glow of fireplaces and copper chandeliers, members rubbed shoulders with corporate titans like banker J.P. Morgan.
Butte had its own turn-of-the-century titans: the Copper Kings. These rival copper barons were F. Augustus Heinze, William Clark (who started the Silver Bow Club in 1882), and Marcus Daly, the head of the Anaconda Company. For years, the Copper Kings fought bitterly for control of Butte’s copper mines. But by the time this new Silver Bow Club building was completed in 1907, the Anaconda Company had come out on top.
Anaconda’s victory shifted the balance of power between labor and capital in Butte. Competition forced the Copper Kings to placate the labor unions, lest workers drop their tools and go to work for a rival company. But Anaconda’s victory eventually made it the overwhelmingly dominant employer, not just in Butte, but in the whole state. This gave the Company (as Montanans called it) immense power over its workers and the state as a whole. In 1903, it temporarily shut down its mines and smelters, inflicting devastating economic pain on miners and the state economy. After that, the threat of a shutdown loomed large in the minds of any challengers to its power.
John D. Ryan, an ambitious executive, guided Anaconda’s dramatic rise to power in the early twentieth century. Marcus Daly had died in 1900 and the Company came under the control of Eastern capitalists. Ryan’s success resulted in his promotion to president of the Company in 1910. The Silver Bow Club celebrated the promotion in what the Butte Daily Post called “one of the most notable banquets in the history of Butte.” The governor and lieutenant governor attended.
But Butte miners weren’t celebrating the Company’s increasing power. Their discontent would open the door to more radical labor organizing approaches, and would bring Frank Little, one of the most radical labor organizers of the era, to Butte.