Butte, MT: "Headwaters of the Columbia River?"

The pride and loyalty many of us Buttians have in our hometown is unbridled and second to none. Such is the case, I’ve often said Butte prefers to speak of itself in superlatives. Butte America. The Richest Hill on Earth. The Gibraltar of Labor. The City of Champions. These are but a few.

While the majority of these monikers are true in whole or part, there are some that, upon further investigation exceed exaggeration. One such handle that falls into this latter category is “the headwaters of the Columbia River.”  

While growing up, I heard it a number of times from otherwise trustworthy sources, so much so that I believed it. Years later, I inadvertently busted this myth while tracing the path of the Clark Fork River, wishfully preparing for an elaborate fishing expedition that never happened. The truth laid bare. While Butte may rightfully call itself the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, it is not the headwaters of the Columbia River.  

About a week ago, while driving home from a hockey camp/vacation in British Columbia, we crossed the mighty Columbia near Kettle Falls, WA and I said to myself, “what a great idea and opportunity for an educational column!” 

From the start…

The headwaters of the Columbia River are actually Columbia Lake in British Columbia, Canada. From there, the river travels a circuitous route over 1,200 miles through BC, Washington and Oregon before it empties into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. It is the fourth-largest river in North America and its watershed drains an area the size of France. It carries more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river on our continent.  

The first major tributary to supplement the Columbia’s flows that we might recognize is the Kootenay River near Castlegar, BC, although it is spelled and known as “Kootenai” in Montana. The largest tributary to the Columbia is the Snake River, while the last major tributary to join the Columbia before it reaches the Pacific is the Willamette. 

Where did the myth that Butte is the headwaters come from? 

While it’s not certain, the most likely individual to blame for misinforming us is copper king William A. Clark. When Clark built the once famous Columbia Gardens amusement park here, he named it in honor of Butte’s location (in his estimation) as the headwaters to the Columbia River. Keeping in mind that Clark also bribed his way into Congress and once boasted it was the arsenic in the air from his smelters that gave Butte’s ladies of the period their lovely complexion, it’s understandable how he might have gotten a few other things miserably wrong. 

Here are some geographical facts and a more likely root to the headwaters myth.  

In Montana, the water west of the Continental Divide eventually drains into the Columbia via the Clark Fork River, and the Kootenai, as previously mentioned. The “Fork” in the Clark Fork name, which honors the William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, is in reference to it being a branch of the Columbia River, though it is not directly connected. 

While the Clark Fork is certainly a major tributary in the Columbia’s Watershed, it cedes its name and existence as a river prior to reaching the Columbia, when it enters Lake Pend Oreille at Clark Fork, ID. The water downstream of Lake Pend Oreille is the Pend Oreille River. The Pend Oreille adds its formidable flows to the Columbia just north of our international border with Canada. 

A small portion of the water flowing in the Pend Oreille River may be water that was once flowing in Silver Bow Creek, albeit after mixing and residing for some unknown period of time within the vastness of first the Clark Fork River and then Lake Pend Oreille. By this explanation, one would need a very bold and creative imagination in order to lay claim that Butte is the headwaters of the Columbia. 

So, there you have it. Butte can accurately state it is the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, Montana’s largest river by flow volume. And while the Clark Fork is definitely a major tributary within the Columbia’s watershed, it is inaccurate to refer to it as the headwaters. As an alternative stretch of the truth, I’ve gone so far as to call Butte “the northeastern-most headwaters of the Columbia River.” And while I can say this tongue-in-cheek with a boastful grin, I wouldn’t bet any money on it.

MAP CUTLINE (credit Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons, 2008): This is a map of the Columbia River watershed with the Columbia River itself highlighted in gray from its headwaters at Columbia Lake in BC to its mouth at Astoria, OR. The red arrow (added by the author) shows the Butte/Silver Bow Creek area, which is the highest headwater stream of the Clark Fork River.