The Berkeley Pit: Butte, MT
Yep. We paid $2/person to take our children to a superfund site… and I would do it again.
Butte, Montana is a mining town in every sense of the word. The hills are dotted with old mining rigs. Yellow hills loom around town. The Butte-Anaconda Historic District is a National Historic Landmark that spans huge swaths of the area. There is still active mining going on in a new open pit mine, adjacent to the Berkley Pit. Our visit to the Berkeley Pit gave us the opportunity to check out the massive mining equipment.
While the mines have largely shut down, what remains is a giant pit that, since they turned off the pumps in the mining tunnels in 1982, has filled with toxic water. It’s so toxic that it killed a bunch of birds that landed there…. twice. (To learn more about the Berkley Pitt and its superfund designation, I recommend the podcast The Richest Hill. We devoured this podcast after leaving Butte on the net few days of our road trip.)
Despite being a huge environmental problem, the Berkeley Pitt is oddly beautiful. At first, the kids couldn’t understand why it had a huge fence around it. They asked why no one was swimming in it. They even asked why there weren’t any animals nearby. (The Berkeley Pit actually has some micro-organisms living in it. Scientists are obviously very interested in finding life in an incredibly inhospitable place.)
So… here is why I’m advocating for taking your kids to the largest Superfund site in North America. Life is super complicated. (You want to use a cell phone, you need copper. Copper comes from a mine… just like this one. Mines produce waste.) Seeing these complications, and learning about the long path to trying to right these wrongs (and often not being able to completely “make it right”) is such an important lesson.
Experience is the best teacher. Plus I’m looking forward to the moment when someone asks them where they went this summer and The Littles reply “a toxic lake.” That’s just the start of a great story.
After your visit to the Berkley Pitt consider heading over to the Butte Brewing Company. They have great beer and delicious pizza. There is a ton of seating inside and out. There were lots of other families there as well. We made this a homeschooling hub, choosing to get some work done, though they do have some table games and a foosball table.