|1916 Sanborn-Perris map of Butte shows the House of Mystery on the corner of Galena and Wyoming. Note the label “Female Boarding” on neighboring buildings denoting prostitution.|
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Butte's House of Mystery
The Montana Standard of September 2, 1936, reported on the demolition of a mysterious building on the corner of Galena and Wyoming in the heart of Butte’s historic red light district.
The long-abandoned building had been slated for demolition before, but the owner had always managed to avoid it. This, time, however, the public eyesore was coming down. As WPA workers began to gut the interior, they discovered the secrets it had long disguised. From the street it appeared to be a two story structure with street entrances to a dozen cribs—tiny offices where the women of the neighborhood had once plied their trade. In one of the crib windows, a display of women’s underwear lay in a pile, its fabric rotting and threadbare. But deeper within the building, workers discovered a three-story maze of hallways that criss-crossed each other, hidden passageways, false floors, tiny closets, and trick wiring. Electrical wires passed through the closets in such a way that the lights could be stealthily switched off from inside. Why would someone need to suddenly and clandestinely throw the building into darkness? When workmen pulled up the flooring with their crowbars, they exposed another dark secret in the basement: a buried room dug out of the bedrock with three filthy beds where someone, at some point in time, had obviously hidden. On one of these beds lay a faded photograph, taken by an Oakland, California, photographer, of two young Chinese boys, one dressed in a traditional embroidered tunic and trousers, the other boy in early nineteenth century American dress. Tunnels from this dugout room ran beneath Wyoming and Galena streets, but bedrock stopped both midway. Today a parking lot sits on this corner, and while the house is long gone, its mystery lingers in the tall tales of Butte.