Abstract: The Natural Case for Integration: The Limits on Business Formation in Western Montana, 1880-1910

Kent Curtis


Between 1880 and 1910, Butte, Montana, underwent the most significant transformation in its short existence as a mining region. It changed from being a multi-company, multi-product industrial mining town to becoming part of a horizontally and vertically integrated international company. This paper looks at this historical transition by examining the role that natural resources played in shaping the institutional development of the mining businesses of the region and eventually as a driving force behind the argument for consolidation of mining and smelting in Butte. I argue that an unusual combination of abundance and scarcity of natural resources led to intense, but avoidable, competition in the forests, in the mines, and in the courts. The unprecedented increase in output that both resulted from and created these conditions led as well to a deteriorated environment in and around Butte city. Attention to the relationships that developed around Montana's natural resources suggests that technological innovation and market demand may not have been the most important variables to explain the pattern of modern business evolution in the western primary metals industry; at least in Butte, natural limits and local factors may have been much more influential.