Survival and opportunism in Butte: A review of The Richest Hill on Earth

by Karen Rigby

The Richest Hill on Earth
Richard S. Wheeler
320 pages, hardcover: $29.99.
Forge, December.

In the run-up to an election year, what can the past reveal about public figures and the role they play in shaping business policies? Montana author Richard S. Wheeler's historical novel The Richest Hill on Earth dramatizes the rivalry between the 19th century "Copper Kings" and the effects it has on the working people of Butte, Mont. Wheeler captures the roughneck atmosphere of the mining town and brings to life the social problems of the Gilded Age. Chapters alternate between real-life industrial magnates -- such as Marcus Daly, founder of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, William Andrews Clark, who became a U.S. senator, and F. Augustus Heinze, owner of the Montana Ore Purchasing Company -- and invented characters like John Fellowes Hall, an editor who relies on yellow journalism; "Red Alice," an Irish widow-turned-Socialist; and Royal Maxwell, a Republican undertaker.

Wheeler reveals Butte's mostly inflexible hierarchy: "The mines, sources of fortunes, were highest up; the privileged a little lower; commercial life a bit lower; and below that were the losers, the depraved, the trash heaps, bawdy districts and cemeteries." Not all of the characters' stories intertwine, but taken together, they provide a lively cross-section of a period known for its extravagance, labor unrest, and the creation of influential corporate trusts. The corruption inspired by Clark's senatorial aspirations helped prompt the 17th Amendment, while anti-trust sentiments were fueled by the conglomeration of mining companies and the gradual takeover of the Anaconda Company by William Rockefeller and Henry Rogers.

Despite the novel's strong emphasis on political and legal maneuvering, its greatest appeal lies in the people who populate it. Clark, who was notorious for bribery, emerges as the calculating man depicted in caricatures of the times, while Daly remains sympathetic to his fellow Irish workers even as he is distanced from their hardships. Secondary characters are drawn with realistic flaws and strengths; no one comes across as just a simple victim of circumstance. Yet each person somehow summons the strength to manage the everyday. The "battered, filthy, chaotic, ugly city, the city that killed its own" is also "a place where determined people might prosper," a multilayered world as versatile and enduring as the copper that inspired it.

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