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Butte's Street-Straddling Elk of 1916

by George Everett

In 1916, Butte, Montana was a crowded, bustling urban metropolis nestled in the middle of the vast open spaces of Montana. The city of almost 100,000, the largest urban center between Minneapolis and Seattle, was busting at its seams with commerce surrounding the extraction of copper and other metals at the edge of an era of endless possibilities and optimism.

It was a time when everyone could believe that technology would save us all. New inventions like the telephone and the automobile, the typewriter and the airplane, and even the recent widespread introduction of electricity, all combined to assure Americans that the future was limitless and bright. And Butte, booming to meet the world's voracious appetite for copper, was a bastion of this bully spirit.

Mine shafts and stopes interlaced Butte's Hill as more and more miners tunneled to extract copper and other precious metals from thousands of feet below the surface. In 1883, 2,000 miners worked in Butte's underground mines. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners working in Butte mines on rotating shifts around the clock.

In the midst of the boom and the enthusiasm of the times, in 1916, members of the Butte Elks Lodge 0240, wanted their annual July convention to be a memorable one, especially since it coincided with Butte's favorite holiday, the 4th of July.

When the word was announced that the Elks lodge was looking to build an arch to parade under, a local stage designer named Edmund Carns approached them with an offer to build more than a simple arch to pass under. He proposed to place an elk of epic dimensions on the central corners of Broadway and Main Streets in time for the festivities. The lodge agreed and paid Carns $4,000 for his talents. Carns used a stuffed elk in the lobby of the lodge as a model and then drew plans for the animal that were several times larger. He assembled the plans in sections laying them out on the stage of the Broadway Theatre where he worked.

The elk was then built behind scaffolding on the street corner where it would stand. Workers labored for two weeks day and night to complete the statue on time for the 4th of July.

They surrounded the heavy timbers that formed the legs with wire mesh and then wrapped that with cotton cloth and glue. After painting to prevent damage from the elements, Carns then applied a plaster that included $1,200 worth of high grade copper ore from the nearby underground copper mines.

When Carns unveiled his completed elk, the statue stood 62 feet tall and 44 feet long with 24-foot high legs that streetcars could easily drive between.

Black and white photographs of the statue are impressive but they do not do it justice. The copper in the plaster finish gave the statue a green hue. Purple and white lights shone from the antler tips. Blue lights draped on a star of fidelity hung between the antlers.

The eyes made from 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs were lit each night. Motorists could look up and see the flank branded with the fraternal greeting "Hello Bill" in large white letters.

The Elks also provided an "animated musical flag" that was composed of 1,200 children in red, white, and blue costumes singing "America the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" as parade floats filed by. Prizes given for entries included one for the smallest elk in the parade when "Big Bill" Moreland of Colorado Springs, Colorado walked by with an elk that he assured others could only be seen with the aid of a microscope.

After the 30,000 or more visitors who had come to Butte for the state convention and the 4th of July parade had left town, the elk remained standing, but not for long. Heated debate erupted among the local Elks who were divided over whether to dismantle the statue or make a permanent display of the elk, either on a butte above the city or at the nearby Columbia Gardens, an amusement park with its carousel, carnival rides, and well-tended flower gardens.

Despite the efforts of Edmund Carns to raise the funds needed to move the elk to a permanent site for posterity, the statue was disassembled before the end of that July with the copper-clad cloth being sent to a nearby smelter to recover the ore. Now only memories remain of the mother of all elks that once was.

Today, B.P.O.E. Lodge 0240 is almost 110 years old, and the stuffed elk that was the original model for the giant elk is stored in the attic of the present lodge at the corner of Montana and Galena Streets in Butte and the only readily accessible remnant from that event more than 80 years ago is a large photo in a gilded frame that still hangs in the lodge today.

This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2001 by George Everett. All rights reserved.


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