The plight of today's coal miners has gained significant attention in recent U.S. politics. As coal mining practices and technologies change in the United States, coal miners face job reductions, but their futures are wrapped up in broader national questions surrounding global trade, the environment, mechanization, and deindustrialization. In his new book, Augustana College professor Brian James Leech
examines a previous moment of technological change in American mining history that created social, economic, and environmental disruption. In the early to mid-twentieth century, open-pit mining became more common in hard-rock mining in the western United States. The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit
(University of Nevada Press, 2018), examines this transition from underground to open-pit mining in Butte, Montana. Open-pit mining required more space, but fewer, lower-skilled workers. Whole communities were relocated, while new environmental hazards developed. The book explores the social and environmental consequences of the transition as well as discussing how the company and surrounding communities reacted to the changes. Finally, The City That Ate Itself
also discusses the closing of the Berkeley pit, the largest open-pit in Butte, and its legacy.
In this episode of the podcast, Leech discusses open-pit mining in Butte within the context of the United States' long and complicated history with mining. He explains when and why open-pit mining came to Butte and how the local community reacted. In the discussion, he explains how new technology changed mining and miners’ lives. Further, he answers questions about the effects of the very visible industrial mining space expanding in Butte. We also discuss Leech’s use of oral history interviews as sources, nostalgia for earlier mining days, and the relevance of this history to today’s political discussions about industrial mining jobs.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th-century U.S. political and cultural history. She’s currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at email@example.com.