Years ago a visit to Hamburg, Germany coincided with the city’s 750th birthday celebration which culminated in a huge fireworks display in the harbor. As the sun lowered we made our way through oldtown to secure a good viewing site. My host family walked me through the the most sinful mile, the historic Reeperbahn District, (ropemaker’s district,) which has been and still is a famous stopover for seamen and others seeking sins of the night.
The fireworks were amazing, as was the crowd. I didn’t know it was possible to sardine-pack so many strangers in such a confined space. As the spectacular show was drawing to a close, the crowd began to shift and my feet left the ground. My host mother, sensing what was about to transpire, clutched my arm in her right hand and her daughter’s arm in her left hand and began plowing through the mass of people like an ox dragging a Conestoga wagon over Donner Pass. We stumbled through vendor booths and past noisy, red-light doorways. I’ve never forgotten the terror of fighting through that crowd or the stony determination of dear Christine to rescue her chicks from very possible destruction.
The memory of that exhausting night caused me to chuckle when I arrived in downtown Butte, Montana on a sightseeing adventure for which our primary goal was to find the infamous Dumas Brothel. The Dumas is the last remaining monument of the many brothels that vied for miners’ paychecks during the early nineteenth century. It was the longest running active brothel in U.S. history, operating from 1890 until 1982.
Butte, however, is the antithesis of Hamburg. Once a bustling den of inequity and rich copper barons, Butte has been slowly deteriorating since mining has decreased. With a placemat-sized map of tourist attractions, we wandered about on a quiet Sunday admiring what was left of the town’s rich history. There are the copper king mansions, some of which have been beautifully restored into new uses as B&Bs. There’s a mineral museum and a mining museum, a Chinese cultural museum, a church on practically every corner, and a lot of down-in-the-heels old mansions and business buildings that appear to have been snapped up by wealthy outside investors and which hunker in various stages of renovation. I believe this town is in the process of a makeover.
We drove a circuitous route through dirt poor housing to find the Granite Mountain Mine Memorial, a tribute to the men lost in the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire of 1917, as well as to other Butte men lost in the course of mining Butte’s copper deposits. An interactive panel plays audio clips about the fire and community. Plaques list the the names of men lost in the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire as well as commemorate the experiences and heroism of those involved.
But all along, what we really wanted to find was that darned brothel. It was a lot harder to find than Hamburg’s Reeparbahn! Turns out the entrance to the brothel was off an alley skirted by a parking lot and a park of sorts. During the tourist season it is possible to schedule a tour of the interior, however during the winter the only action was a filming company that was using the interior for a shoot.
Aha! There it is, with a crusty customer waiting in line….socially distanced.
Street murals to spice up the park(ing lot).
I’m sure there’s action to be had somewhere in Butte these days, but unlike Hamburg, the sex industry now operates underground, no pun intended.