The Copper Wars of Butte and the Invention of Underground Geological Mapping

he Copper Wars of Butte and the Invention of Underground Geological Mine Mapping

The Copper Wars, called by some the Battle of Butte, took place between the Anaconda Company and companies owned by Fredrick Augustus Heinze over the period 1898 to 1906. One of the significant players in that conflict was Reno Sales (1876-1969) then a young Anaconda geologist.  Well into his eighties, Sales wrote a book about his experiences in the “wars” called Underground Warfare at Butte (1964). Much of this post is based on that book.

Butte Montana

In the late summer of 1864, a group of prospectors discovered placer gold in the alluvial gravels along Missoula Gulch in Silver Bow County, Western Montana. A rush ensued, but the gravels were thin and soon exhausted. The gold miners moved on. But swarms of iron and manganese-stained quartz veins – up to 30m wide – had been noted at surface throughout the Butte district. Within 10 years, shafts sunk on these veins had discovered rich silver ore and a new rush began.  Butte became a boom town based on silver and lead mining.  Late in 1882, a crosscut from the 300-foot level of Marcus Daly’s Anaconda silver mine opened a 10 m wide vein of high-grade chalcocite (copper sulphide: Cu2S). Soon a new rush based on copper mining began as more and more bonanza veins were discovered and developed through numerous shafts and dozens of individual claims. All this coincided with a booming demand for copper as America began to electrify at the end of the nineteenth century, there were fortunes to be made at Butte.

The Butte mineral field was, and possibly still is, one of the biggest metal concentrations on the planet. Up to 2013, it had produced 9.8 million tonnes of copper along with very substantial tonnages of Zinc, Manganese, Lead, Molybdenum, Silver and Gold. As at that date, a resource of 4.9 billion tonnes of 0.49% copper, 0.033% Mo remained to be mined (Houston and Dilles, 2013). Mining of copper and molybdenum in the Continental open cut continues to this day.

Geology of Butte from Houston and Dlles

Figure 1: Geology of the Butte District. Orange lines are the mineral veins, blue lines are faults. L is the Leonard Shaft, Tw the Tramway Shaft, Ra the Rarus Shaft, Pe the Pennsylvania Shaft and A the Anaconda Shaft. Figure 3 from Houston & Dilles, Economic Geology, v108, 2013.

UG Plan of Coluso Leonard Vein at Butte from Sales 1914

Figure 2: An example of detailed underground mapping at Butte by Anaconda geologists: the 1200′ underground level of the Pennsylvania mine. From Reno Sales 1914 Memoir: “Ore deposits at Butte, Montana.” 

The Apex Law

The United States Law of the Apex (or Apex Law, or Apex Rule) was established and defined by the US General Mining Law of 1872 and applies to Federal public lands, located mostly in the Western States. It was based on the idea of winner take all. If you own the highest point – called the apex – of a mineralised vein, the Apex Law allows you to mine it down dip, even beyond the point where it passes at depth through the projected vertical boundary of your claim into an adjacent property. The apex holder can continue mining down the dip of the vein past his claim boundaries, but not along its strike. Where the claim is rectangular with long sides parallel or sub-parallel to the vein strike (as would normally be the case) then the law states that mining at depth must be constrained within the projected vertical planes that define the two short sides of your claim: provided these sides are parallel and not divergent, and provided your claim was registered first. This is called your Extralateral Right. A Sub-Fault Apex is created where upward continuity of a vein ends against an intersecting fault plane. “Continuity” is the key word here.  If the essential character and continuity of a vein can be demonstrated across a displacing fault, then the apex of the vein is the apex of the vein on the hangingwall of that fault and there is no sub-fault apex on the footwall.

What could possibly go wrong?

This absurd law, still in force today although seldom used, was apparently written to legalize and codify what had become accepted mining practice in the Comstock silver district of Nevada – traditions probably brought there by immigrant Cornish miners and reflecting mining practice going back to pre-Roman times. But in the Comstock District (or in Cornwall for that matter) veins are usually discreet with relatively constant strike and dip. In Butte, by contrast, the mineralised veins form anastomosing swarms over an area of 15 km2, with variable strike and dip, and are cut and displaced by numerous faults (figure 1).

By 1887, virtually every surface vein had been located and pegged in the Butte area with hundreds of claims and dozens of head frames. With bonanza grades and millions of dollars at stake, it is not surprising that the Apex Law provided the source for endless litigation, illegality and corruption. This led directly to the Copper Wars of Butte and the genesis of detailed geological mine mapping.

The Anaconda Copper Company Consolidates the Field

By 1898, a round of acquisitions, financed by East Coast money men, led to extensive consolidation of ownership with the Anaconda Copper Company becoming the dominant player on the field (see Footnote [1]). One of Anaconda’s first steps was to set up a well-resourced geology department to provide accurate surface and underground geological mapping of the vein systems and enclosing rocks. This was not just to provide information for mine development, but to arm themselves with exact scientific data to use in the expected litigation consequent on the Apex Law. The department was set up and headed by Horace V. Winchell. Among his first hires were rookie geologist Reno H Sales (in 1900, from Columbia School of Mines, New York City) and David M Brunton (an experienced Canadian geologist, inventor of the eponymous compass). Between them these three worked out the essential methods and procedures for accurate underground mapping of Butte’s geology.

Reno Sales 3

Reno H Sales in 1939

A New Player Comes to Town

In 1898, at around the same time as the Anaconda company was being formed, a new and colourful character entered the scene at Butte. He was Frederick Augustus Heinze (or Fritz, to his friends).

F Augustus King in 1910

Frederick Augustus Heinze in 1910

Graduating as a mining engineer from the same school as Sales, Heinze, with borrowed money and an inheritance of $50,000, created several shelf companies to buy up a portfolio of many of the scattered small claims in the district that had yet to be absorbed by Anaconda. This group of mines and companies came to be known as The Copper Trust. Heinze promoted himself and the Copper Trust as the champions of the little miner against the creeping hegemony of the “evil” Anaconda. He acquired a local daily newspaper – called the Reveille – which constantly attacked Anaconda and its senior employees, accusing them of corruption, perjury and illegal activity. Sales called it a smear sheet. Heinze also used his considerable demagogic skills to address crowds of miners from the Butte Hotel balcony, or from the Courthouse steps. He became a hero to his employees, reducing their working hours from 10 to eight hours per day. But most importantly, he made friends with and influenced the District Attorney and District Judge William Clancy. Clancy was particularly important to Heinze as he presided at the Silver Bow County Court in which rulings on the application of Mining Law in much of the Butte District were given. Judge Clancy’s rulings were so biased in favour of Heinze that it is hard not to believe there was a direct financial connection between them (although Sales is careful to make no claim of outright corruption).

The Copper Wars of Butte lasted for seven years. Over that period  were dozens of individual battles, conducted in the courts and at the rock faces underground. Many of these disputes ran simultaneously. Writing in his old age in 1964, Reno Sales was intimately involved in most of these battles and describes them in great detail in his book.

I retell the story of just two, to indicate the nature and scale of the conflict.

The Battle for the Pennsylvania

The most productive claim owned by the Copper Trust was Rarus. Ore coming up the Rarus haulage shaft provided the main feed for their concentrator and smelter which were located on the claim. The Rarus claim contained a system of interconnecting veins which dipped mostly south at a steep angle and so, with some wishful thinking, might pass at depth into the adjacent Pennsylvania and Michael Devitt claims of Anaconda (figure 4). The future of the small Rarus orebodies, and of its ever-hungry smelter, therefore critically depended on proving before a Judge that Rarus had extra-lateral mining rights into the Anaconda ground.

Map of Rarus Claims original from Sales

Figure 4: A portion of the Butte mineral field showing claims held around 1901. The claims shaded with dots were owned by Anaconda. The Rarus claim (with no shading) and its extension to the SE (diagonal lines) were owned by Frederick Heinze and the Copper Trust. Other parties owned the  unshaded claims to the west. Figure reproduced from Sales, 1964. 

The situation was complicated by the large, northeast trending, shallow northwest-dipping, Rarus Normal Fault. The fault displaced all veins in the area by up to 120 m. The Rarus Fault was by then well-established through geological mapping – both at surface by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and underground by the Anaconda Company. The Rarus veins lay on the hangingwall of the fault: the rich Pennsylvania and Michael Devitt veins that Heinze coveted were on the footwall. However, the direction of throw on this fault made it virtually impossible that the Rarus veins ever were continuous with vein systems of Michel Devitt and Pennsylvania. The The only way for Heinze to establish extra-lateral rights was to go to court and deny the existence of the Rarus Fault. To establish this, Heinze was able to obtain (“buy”, might be a better word) the testimony of a series of mining “experts” – one of them a former USGS geologist who, in that role, had put his name to the USGS geological map portfolio!

Now, as it happened, the Michael Devitt claim lay outside the jurisdiction of Silver Bow County so Heinze had to make his case before a Judge sitting in the Federal Court at Helena (the Capital of Montana). But, for his claim on Pennsylvania, he was able to make his case before his good friend, County Court Judge William Clancy. With a long line of expert witnesses for both sides, these court cases took weeks to resolve and were expensive for both parties. Unsurprisingly, the Federal Judge rejected Heinze’s petition. Judge Clancy, on the same evidence, and by a stroke of the judicial pen, removed the Rarus Fault from the equation and granted Heinze extralateral rights to Pennsylvania.

The dispute went on for several years. Over that time the Copper Trust were mining and hauling to surface through the Rarus shaft, substantial tonnages of ore illegally mined underground from both the Michael Devitt and Pennsylvania properties. There were more court cases, injunctions were issued, mine inspectors appointed, visits by US Marshalls, and fines of $20,000[2] imposed on Frederick Heinze[3] and $2000 and $1000 respectively on his Chief Engineer Alfred Frank and the Mine Foreman Josiah Trerise. Heinze paid all these no heed and continued to mine Anaconda ore.

So it came about that throughout the year 1903 both Anaconda and the Copper Trust were mining ore within the Pennsylvania Lease between the 400’ and 1000’ levels. The mining levels of the Rarus and Pennsylvania mines differed by 50’ in elevation. Both Anaconda (Pennsylvania) and Copper Trust (Rarus) sought advantage by advancing drifts[4] above the level of the opposition in order to  extract the ore first. Almost daily, Pennsylvania workings would break into the workings of Rarus, and vice versa. When this happened, the openings were vigorously defended by opposing groups of miners, using high pressure water hoses, throwing rocks or blowing lime. Strangely, according to Sales, the miners regarded all this as something of a game, and confrontation seldom continued after they returned to surface. But it would not stay a game for long…

Drawing Butte miners at war from Sales

Figure 5: Fighting in the Pennsylvania Mine in 1903. Reproduced from Sales, 1964.

But it would not stay a game for long…

By October 1903, all attempts by Anaconda to gain access to Rarus workings so that they could document their illegal ore extraction for use in Court, had failed. With the approval of the Federal Court, Anaconda then commenced a raise[5] from the Pennsylvania 600 level to intersect the Copper Trust stopes on the Rarus 800 level (6): the raise would provide Anaconda with their own access to the Copper Trust workings (see figure 6). As the Anaconda raise broke through into Rarus 800, Rarus miners tried to stop access by tipping mine waste into the new shaft and lighting large fires of rubber and leather where a downdraft would drive the fumes into the shaft and the Pennsylvania workings below.

Scene of the crime

Figure 6: The scene of the crime (not to scale).

On the first day of the year 1904, thinking the Pennsylvania mine would be deserted due to the New Year holiday, Rarus miners lowered a large box of dynamite down the shaft and detonated it remotely. But although the Pennsylvania was quiet, two miners – Frederick Divel and Samuel Olsen – were working that night on the 600 level. They had been given the special task of erecting an airtight wooden bulkhead near the foot of the shaft to block the noxious fumes of burning rubber coming down the shaft. The blast from the explosion killed Olsen instantly. Divel was terribly wounded and died a few hours later.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the dynamiting of the Rarus shaft was done with the full knowledge and probable instigation of Rarus management. However, at the subsequent Coronial Inquest, all employees of the Rarus Mine, from the foreman to lowest miner, swore on oath they knew nothing of the tragic event. Thomas Thyack, the Rarus Shift Boss who was on the level at the time of the explosion could not (or would not) give the names of the other miners present on the level because, he said, he only knew them by their first names. County Attorney Peter Breen (representing the Copper Trust) and State Attorney L O Evans (representing Anaconda) were only prevented from coming to blows in the court by the intervention of the Coroner. The Jury’s verdict was manslaughter by person or persons unknown. Despite Anaconda’s offer of a $5000 reward, no one came forward, no one was ever charged with the crime.

The Battle for the Leonard Deeps

Among the many bits and bobs of scattered small claims bought by Heinze in his initial acquisition phase was the tiny 1.7 ha (4.2 ac) Minnie Healy.

To the south of Minnie Healy was the Tramway Claim of which Anaconda was the majority owner. The Tramway mine was inactive: there was a court injunction against mining in place. The Tramway vein dipped north and was projected to enter Minnie Healy at depth. But Anaconda had the apex of the Tramway, and clear extra-lateral rights.

To the north, Minnie Healey was bordered by a group of claims wholly owned and being actively mined by Anaconda. The ore was won from the rich Coluso, Gambetta-3 and Leonard veins – which were amongst the most productive of the Butte field. These veins dipped steep south, converging below the 700’ level into a horsetail zone with outstanding tonnage potential (see Figures 2 and 7).

Section through Butte hi-grade copper veins

Figure 7: A vertical cross-section (view to west) of vein systems in the vicinity of the Minnie Healy claim of the Copper Trust. Redrafted, with some additional annotation. From Sales, 1964

In the Minnie Healy mine itself were several small anastomosing veins collectively known as the Gambetta-1 and Gambetta-2 vein systems. These veins had variable but steep dips to the south, but there was no evidence that they might trend at depth beyond the vertical boundaries of the Claim. The remaining copper reserves in these veins was modest. It was clear to Frederick Heinze that there was limited future to his mining operations on Minnie Healy. What he really wanted (and probably why he had bought the little-regarded Minnie Healy Claim in the first place) was the rich Leonard-Colusa-Gambetta-3 vein system below the 700’ level of the adjacent Anaconda mine. To legally mine that, he needed to prove he had the apex of the vein system. He needed to apply for extralateral rights from his good friend Judge Clancy whom he could usually rely on to give a favourable ruling.

And so began yet another of the endless series of apex hearings in the Silver Bow County District Court.

As an expert witness for Anaconda, Reno Sales showed the court a geological section (figure 7) based on detailed geological mapping using the methods that had been developed and carried out by the Anaconda geological team over the preceding few years. Appearing for the Copper Trust, their Chief Engineer Al Frank produced a “geological” section which showed a broad, fuzzy mineralised zone dipping north from the Minnie Healey to enclose the coveted Leonard-Coluso-Gambetta-3 deeps below the 700 level in the Anaconda ground. Franks’ “geological” section was based on little more than wish fulfilment. It omitted the Rarus Fault [7] whose existence, of course, would have been detrimental to his position. Frank’s interpretation of the geology as presented to the court is shown as the broad purple dash line superimposed upon the Anaconda section of figure 7.

The new geological science of accurate underground mapping won the day. Judge Clancy denied The Copper Trust’s claim for extra-lateral rights and placed an injunction on their mining in the Anaconda ground. But in an absurd twist, he at the same time placed a similar injunction on Anaconda from extracting ore in their own mine from below the 700 level! Presumably, he thought this the Judgement of Solomon.

Although not quite the judgement he had sought, Heinze was undaunted. He reflected that what goes on underground is easy to conceal. An injunction to cease and desist only affects those companies who feel compelled to obey the ruling. With Anaconda excluded from the deep levels of their own mine, Heinze felt free to crosscut from Minnie Healey and commence illegal mining of the Coluso-Leonard deeps. As Anaconda subsequently found out when they eventually re-gained access to their mine, many thousands of tons of rich copper ore were removed. At the same time, in early 1904, Heinze constructed a secret crosscut to the south from the 1000’ Minnie Healy level and commenced to mine the Tramway vein, despite another Federal Court injunction against both companies mining this vein.

Anaconda Wins the War

In February of 1906, Anaconda bought all the assets of Frederick Augustus Heinze for $10.5 million. Heinze took his money and left for New York with the intention of turning his great fortune (by then estimated at $25 million) into an even greater one. With his brothers Otto and Arthur, he set up a brokerage firm and attempted to corner the stock in the United Copper Company so as to drive up the price and make a killing on the forced buying by short sellers (by that stage they hoped to hold all the stock). But the scheme failed spectacularly, and the three brothers went  bankrupt (8).  This scandal is credited with instigating the great Wall Street crash of 1907 and the subsequent creation, in 1913, of the Federal Reserve.

F. Augustus Heinze returned to the west and resumed his specialty of apex litigation in the Coeur D’Alene district of Idaho. He died in 1914 of cirrhosis of the liver. He was 44.

(for the post-Butte history of Heinze I am indebted to the 2012 article: The Copper King’s Precipitous Fall.  by Gilbert King.)

In 1906, Sales succeeded Horace Winchell as the Chief Geologist of the Anaconda Copper Company (see Reno Sales biography, Perry & Meyer, 1968). The Anaconda Company became renowned for the excellence of their geological work. The quality of geological mine mapping for which North American geologists are renowned was a direct result of the foundations laid by Reno Sales and his colleagues in Butte in the early years of the 19th century. The geology department led by Reno Sales was one of the major factors which contributed to the the growth of Anaconda through the 20th Century to become one of the world’s major mining houses.

Reno Sales was director of the geology department of Anaconda until his retirement in 1947. In his long career, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Montana State College (1935), the Penrose Medal of the Society of Economic Geologists (1939) and the Egleston Medal for distinguished engineering achievement (1942). He was President of the Society of Economic Geologists in 1937.

Reno Sales died in 1968 at the age of 82.

Some Final Thoughts

Anaconda was the eventual winner of the Copper Wars and, like all winners, got to write its history.  That history is a satisfying one of Good Guys v. Bad Guys, where the good guys win through in the end after years of struggle. That is the story I have retold here. But was the bad guy (Heinze) entirely the one-dimensional, opportunistic, greedy rogue portrayed by Sales? At the time, Heinze portrayed himself as a battler for the rights of small miners and small mining companies, threatened by a wealthy corporation with bottomless pockets. Undoubtedly, many in Butte during the nineteen noughties saw it that way too, and it is clear that his miners were fiercely loyal to him. Maybe Anaconda’s motives during the war were not always pure, or their methods always strictly legal. Heinze’s efforts to counter the technical presentations of Anaconda geologists before the courts may appear ludicrous, but he did not have the luxury of a well-resourced geology department to support him.

It would thus be interesting and instructive to read the story of the Copper Wars from the perspective of Frederick Heinze. But to explore that thought would require much more detailed research into original sources, if such exist.  A good place to start would be back copies of the Reveille newspaper from the early 1900s.  But that is more than I am able to do.


The present author was an employee of the Anaconda company from 1976 to 1985.


King, Gilbert. September 2012: The copper king’s precipitous fall. Smithsonian Magazine.

Houston R. A. and Dilles J.H.: 2013: Structural geologic evolution of the Butte district, Montana. Economic Geology, V108, pp 1397-1424.

Meyer, C., Shea E. P., Goddard C. C., Staff: 1970. Ore deposits at Butte, Montana. In: Ore Deposits of the United States, Gratton-Sales Volume 2, AIME, pp 1373-1416.

Perry V. D. and Meyer C., 1970: Biography of Reno H Sales. In: Ore Deposits of the United States, Gratton-Sales Volume 1, AIME, pp xvii-xxiii.

Reno H Sales, 1914: Ore deposits at Butte, Montana. AIME Transactions v46, pp 4-106.

Reno H Sales, 1964. Underground warfare at Butte. Caxton Printers, 77 p.



[1] In 1899, Wall Street financiers, including Henry Rogers (Standard Oil) and William Rockefeller bought out the major producers of the field including Marcus Daly’s Anaconda Co (already enlarged from the original Anaconda claim through rounds of prior acquisitions), the Parrott Co, the Boston and Montana Co and the Boston and Butte Co to form the giant Amalgamated Copper Company. By 1910, when all the field at Butte had come under control of Amalgamated Copper, the name was changed to the the Anaconda Copper Company. Anaconda continued to mine ore from the Butte district until 1983. For simplicity in this essay, I will refer to the company from its formation in 1899 as the Anaconda Copper Company, or just Anaconda.

[2] All dollar values quoted in this essay are those of 1900. For the equivalent in 2021 dollars, multiply by 30.

[3] A drop in the bucket, considering that by that stage he had already stolen, according to Sales, over $500,000 worth of high-grade copper ore.

[4] A drift is a horizontal opening driven along an ore body.

[5] A raise is an internal shaft driven upwards from an underground level.

(6) Mine levels are normally numbered by their depth below the shaft collar. Since the Rarus and Pennsylvania shafts only differed in elevation by 50′, it is difficult to understand why the Rarus 800′ level was above the Pennsylvania 600′ level. But these are the figures given by Sales. It makes no difference to the story.

[7] Franks did not have to prove this. The non-existence of the Rarus Fault had already been established to the satisfaction of Judge Clancy in an earlier hearing before him.

(8) Oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brothers tried the same trick with the silver market in 1979-80, with the same disastrous results.

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