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Winner of the Mining History Association Clark Spence Award for the Best Book in Mining History, 2017-2018
Brian James Leech provides a social and environmental history of Butte, Montana’s Berkeley Pit, an open-pit mine which operated from 1955 to 1982. Using oral history interviews and archival finds, The City That Ate Itself explores the lived experience of open-pit copper mining at Butte’s infamous Berkeley Pit. Because an open-pit mine has to expand outward in order for workers to extract ore, its effects dramatically changed the lives of workers and residents. Although the Berkeley Pit gave consumers easier access to copper, its impact on workers and community members was more mixed, if not detrimental.
The pit’s creeping boundaries became even more of a problem. As open-pit mining nibbled away at ethnic communities, neighbors faced new industrial hazards, widespread relocation, and disrupted social ties. Residents variously responded to the pit with celebration, protest, negotiation, and resignation. Even after its closure, the pit still looms over Butte. Now a large toxic lake at the center of a federal environmental cleanup, the Berkeley Pit continues to affect Butte’s search for a postindustrial future.
About the Author
Brian James Leech is a Montana native and an assistant professor of history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He currently serves as Secretary of the Mining History Association.
"The City That Ate Itself is an important contribution to the historical scholarship on resource extraction and industrial communities in North America, a literature that has grown significantly in size and sophistication in the past twenty years or so. Well written and well illustrated, the book makes novel links between the urban social history of the city (and experiences of its residents) and the “envirotechnical” landscapes of large-scale mineral production. In doing so, this study generates insights relevant to the environmental history and historical geography of mines and their cities well beyond Butte."
— H-NET Reviews
His [Leech’s] discussion is the fairest, least judgmental, and least anti-corporate assessment of environmental damages that I have read. But what makes this book so special is that Leech understands that the Pit undid and re-did everything and that it touched every aspect of life in Butte... His is a cautionary tale, to be sure, but one with lessons that extend far beyond Butte.
— Utah Historical Quarterly
The City That Ate Itself is a deeply researched, carefully contextualized, and thoughtfully constructed book. By turning our attention to the ways mining, the environment, and social change are mutually constituted and interdependent, Leech joins with the recent work of other environmental historians—notably Thomas Andrews, Timothy LeCain, and Jeffrey Manuel—who have helped us reimagine the centrality of mining and minerals in forging the American past.
— Pacific Historical Review
With The City That Ate Itself Leech offers a vital addition not only to historiographies focused on Butte or mining in general, but also to our understanding of the history of the American West. This monograph offers a blueprint that future researchers may follow when examining the rise and decline of similar extractive communities, not only across the region, but nationally and even globally. As it stands, The City That Ate Itself should be a welcome addition to the collection of anyone even tangentially interested in this topic.
— Western Historical Quarterly
The City That Ate Itself makes a valuable contribution not only to Butte and Montana history, but also to the scholarship of the transition that many communities must undergo as they move into post-industrial futures.
— Montana The Magazine of Western History
Leech has written a comprehensive history of Butte's difficult path and a sympathetic investigation into what keeps the city going despite continuing challenges...Leech tells Butte's story in impressive detail with commendable nuance...His book reads like first-rate journalism, carefully accumulating relevant facts and letting the reader draw conclusions.
— Economic History Review
There is considerably more going on in The City That Ate Itself than can be covered in a short review: open pit work’s effects on male workers’ sense of camaraderie, independence, and status; the impacts of noise, hazards, and displacement on social geography; excellent technical descriptions of evolving mining methods. Suffice it to say, the book is a significant contribution to understanding the history of “an industrial center in the middle of the rural West,” (4) and, in a larger context, provides a template to investigate the social and environmental histories of other industrial cities across the Great Plains and mountain regions.
— Great Plains Research
Leech’s book is an inspiring model of thorough and creative research.… a compassionate, insightful, and remarkably nuanced tale about the struggles of a single place in the American West. His book demonstrates how unsettling environmental stories from the past can help us understand where we came from and imagine how the choices we make today can shape the world around us in the present and future.
— Journal of American History
… a good read and useful for understanding Butte history, open-pit mining, and how American cities coped with the post-industrial era.