Unlocking History: History of Long-Forgotten Speakeasy uncovered in Butte remains mysterious
Mike Byrnes was rummaging through a long defunct, derelict hotel in Uptown Butte when he found a door that opened into another era.
It was 2004 and Byrnes was co-owner of an Uptown tour company called Old Butte Historical Adventures. He was in the midst of cleaning out a room inside the almost forgotten Rookwood Hotel on Main Street. He planned to bring tour groups inside the hotel and show them how miners once lived in Butte.
Curiosity lured him into the basement, where he entered what appeared to be an old cloak room.
To his right was an old Masonite door with a small hole drilled through it at about eye-level. The door was padlocked. Using a Phillips head screwdriver, he snapped open the old lock and pushed hard on the door.
It wouldn’t budge.
He tried kicking. The door flung open, and a musty darkness greeted him.
Byrnes scanned the room with a pen light. Seeing a bar to his right, Byrnes knew immediately what he had found. It was a speakeasy, sealed for no telling how long.
“I was just absolutely amazed,” Byrnes said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The bar faced a room about 25 feet long, extending underneath the Main Street sidewalk. Walls covered with dark wood wainscoting and framed with Tudor arches enclosed a space where carved birds – rooks perhaps – perched atop the support columns. A sculpted ceiling hung low over a terrazzo tiled floor. A betting board covered the far wall, and a 1928 Stetson beaver-pelt hat adorned with a Herbert Hoover presidential campaign pin rested on a nail next to the bar.
The hole in the door had obviously been a peephole – what speakeasy didn’t have one?
Around the corner, Byrnes found another hole that looked into the cloak room. He would later hang a two-way mirror over that hole — as he believed the operators of the speakeasy did to see anyone about to knock on the door.
Two weeks after the discovery, the speakeasy was opened to the public for tours. Then, Byrnes and his business partner Denny Dutton (who passed away last year) visited retirement homes around Butte hoping to find someone who might have been in the speakeasy or at least known about it.
They had no luck.
Byrnes did, however, find a former cab driver who had lived in the hotel in the 1950s, which ahd been renamed the La Salle. The driver had no idea the speakeasy existed.
No one knows how long it had been since anyone had been inside the speakeasy before Byrnes blustered into it in 2004.
Dick Gibson, a tour guide who takes groups into the speakeasy and the author of “Lost Butte, Montana” and Bob McMurray, who bought Butte Historical Adventures from Byrnes and Dutton in 2007, both thought that Brian Shovers had been inside the speakeasy in the 1980s when Shovers was conducting an architectural inventory of the city as president of the Butte Historical Society.
But Shovers, now head librarian at the Montana Historical Society, hadn’t entered the speakeasy until well after Byrnes had found it.
Disparities like these are par for the course in Montana’s most mythological town, where historical episodes can assume multiple lives – lives that depend on the hearsay of whoever is recounting the history.
As you might describe all of Uptown Butte, Shovers describes the speakeasy as a time capsule.
The capsule’s contents don’t offer a clear picture of the people that frequented the place. But this hasn’t stopped historians, amateur and professional, from trafficking in supposition, based on who they believe stayed or lived upstairs in the hotel.
McMurray and Gibson both believe that the speakeasy was a gathering place for Butte’s upper crust.
“It’s a presumption based on how fancy the place was,” Gibson said.
With its marble walls and floors, its double-door Otis elevator, its wrought-iron spiral staircase, and all the rest of its architectural and design flourishes, the hotel suggests to McMurray and Gibson an elegance only the wealthy might have been able to enjoy.
“It’s almost inconceivable that this wasn’t really for the top level of people. It’s too nice of a building,” Gibson said.
Ellen Baumler, interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society, sees a different hotel.
“There is nothing grand about it at all,” Baumler said. “It is a rather simple rooming house like scores of others that were built in Butte at various times to accommodate the huge overflow of miners and other working class folks.”
Baumler said there wasn’t a market for an upscale hotel in Butte at the time the Rookwood was erected. Butte’s copper kings, she said, had already sold out to investors that didn’t live in Butte.
Most of the well-paid professionals that might have stayed or lived in a ritzy hotel and drunk at an upscale watering hole left Butte when the city’s last-standing copper king, William A. Clark, bought his U.S. Senate seat in 1901 and moved to Washington, D.C.
To support her theory that the Rookwood was a rooming house and never an upscale hotel, she unearthed a classified ad from the May 18, 1913, edition of The Anaconda Standard offering rooms at the Rookwood: “The most modern, up-to-date rooming house in the city,” it reads. “Local and transient trade solicited.”
The building was erected in 1912 by James Pratt, who ran his Red Boot and Shoe Company out of the ground floor space adjacent to the hotel entrance (in what is now the BS Café).
It’s likely that the space where the speakeasy would exist was initially the lobby of the hotel.
“Space was at a premium [in Butte], so you probably wanted to make space for the residential rooms upstairs,” Gibson said.
McMurray, who was a carpenter before he got into the tour business, points to the cobbled-together nature of the plumbing and sink underneath the bar, leading him and Gibson to believe the bar had initially been the lobby’s front desk.
Baumler doesn’t rule out the possibility that the speakeasy attracted a class of society higher than the one living upstairs. The speakeasy’s location suggests that it might have even attracted a local official or two. Afterall, the hotel backed up to city hall. All that separated the speakeasy from the police department and city jail were an alleyway and a couple of walls.
“Just goes to prove that nothing in Butte was really illegal,” Baumler said.
A letter that McMurray has framed on a wall just outside the speakeasy underscores Baumler’s point. It’s from the city engineer to the mayor, warning that all of the rye, wheat, grapes, plums, and other discarded types of mash clogging the pipes threatened to break the city’s sewer system. Historians estimate there may have been as many as 100 drinking establishments in Butte during Prohibition.
But federal government officials weren’t quite as permissive as local law enforcement.
On March 8, 1928, the feds raided 33 different drinking establishments across Butte, including the Rookwood.
“It is estimated,” The Butte Miner reported, “that 150 gallons of whiskey, 1,500 bottles of beer and 30 gallons of wine were destroyed by the hue and cry.”
“The agents, taking advantage of the evening rush hour of thirst quenchers, had little difficulty in entering any of the places,” The Anaconda Standard added. Arrested at the Rookwood was infamous bootlegger and moonshiner Curly McFarland.
“I think [the raid] was a case of the feds flexing their muscle and saying, ‘OK, Butte, you’ve been ignoring the federal constitution for eight years. We’re going to come in and show you who’s boss,’ ” Gibson said. “And they were boss for March 8, 1928.”
As a testament to Butte’s intransigent indulgence in the face of temperance, McMurray likes to show on his tour of the speakeasy a historic photograph of temperance radical Carrie Nation walking in the Cabbage Patch, Butte’s down-and-out neighborhood in 1910.
A flyer seen around town at the time of her visit that says, “All nations welcomed, except Carrie.”
“She was as strong as a bull when she got here,” McMurray said of the woman who was known to enter drinking establishments clutching a Bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other. “But she had taken so much abuse, getting thrown out of bars and getting thrown of brothels, that she never did get healthy again. She died within nine months of leaving here.”
The true history of the Rookwood will probably remain elusive, but its simple existence lends itself to more than just historical interpretation – it also lends itself to how the city has long seen itself. And as anyone who’s spent time in Butte knows, the city often likes to see itself through the prism of a bar glass.
Ted Brewer is a frequent contributor to Montana Magazine. He writes from Helena.