BUTTE, Mont. - It's the first thing that catches your eye as you're driving down the continental divide into Silver Bow valley.
The 'M' plastered into the side of Big Butte is arguably the Mining City's most famous icon. But what makes it iconic?
These hillside monograms are popular across the western half of the United States, and especially in Montana, where there are estimated to be as many as 90.
While the chronology isn't exactly known, it's believed that Butte's 'M' is one of the earliest of these letters, as it was built in May 1910 in a single day.
From sun-up to sundown, 50 engineering students at Montana Tech, then known as the Montana School of Mines, constructed the famous 'M' from several tons of limestone, paint, and water.
The original 'M' stood 90 feet high by 75 feet wide, but the addition of serifs in 1912 made the 'M' an even 90 by 90.
Perhaps the 'M's biggest makeover came in 1962 when 150 lights were added to its façade. It's still the only college letter in Montana to stay illuminated when the sun goes down.
So, that's the history of Butte's big letter. But what is it that makes it stand out from the crowd?
Julia Crain, assistant director at the Butte-Silver Bow department of reclamation, has her theories.
"I think that there are two things that make it special," Crain said. "The Big Butte stands alone and does not have mountains that are detracting from it and its prominence at the top of the hill."
"The second is that we've gone above and beyond and put some lights on that thing, which is very spectacular," Crain said. "And it blinks when we see a big 'V' [for victory] from the School of Mines, or Montana Tech."
So, the 'M' stands for 'Montana,' right? Well, yes, but it also stands for so much more.
"The 'M' really stand for Butte, and it stands for mining, and it stands for a pride that we have in our community's history and its prominence in our state, and the experiences that we all share as residents in this community," Crain said.
That's the skinny of the 'M' on Big Butte, but the story doesn't end there. After all, there are 89 other hillside letters across the Treasure State with their own stories waiting to be told.
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