The Story Behind the Lady of the Rockies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because collectively the human spirit can accomplish impressive feats.
By Nick Fouriezos
From Bozeman, the final stretch west along Interstate 90 looks like just another picturesque bend in Montana postcard country. But trace the shadows up the looming hilltops of the East Ridge and you’ll come to a single flash of white. There stands the Lady of the Rockies, the fourth-tallest statue in the country, overlooking the tiny city of Butte.
More than a mere religious token, it speaks to the history of what was once the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco — the largest, that is, until the collapse of the mining industry. The statue’s creation is a story of the faith of its residents and a testimony to how ordinary people can rally around causes bigger than themselves.
The 90-foot steel statue atop this 3,500-foot mountain had humble beginnings: Back in 1979, Bob O’Bill promised to the powers that be that he would build a five-foot structure if his wife beat cancer. So when she recovered, he and his friends, mostly miners and craftsmen, threw out the first plan and aimed higher. Among them were John Roberts, a local businessman, and his employee Leroy Lee, a welder who struggled with fractions and never graduated high school but ended up designing and sculpting the eight-story statue.
Even the Catholic bishop of Helena asked the builders to stop talking about mystical happenings.
Cue the 1980s and the start of the mining and manufacturing decline that would riddle the nation for the next 30 years. Bad timing meant the thousands in Butte who worked the so-called “Richest Hill on Earth” and its lucrative copper deposits were affected when the smelter in nearby Anaconda closed. O’Bill’s project suffered a public backlash when The Montana Standard quoted him as saying the statue would cost millions to build, without mentioning that the funds would come mostly from volunteers. People were struggling just to survive. “Who would pay for future upkeep? It would become a monument of rust,” wrote one angry reader, while others suggested the money would be better spent on schools, outdoor ice rinks or anti-poverty initiatives, as Lee recalls in his memoir, Our Lady Builds a Statue.
But even the criticism proved a blessing in disguise: Laid-off workers provided the workforce needed to clear a trail up the mountain. “[The project] helped pull the community together at a time when people didn’t have money, didn’t have jobs,” says Aubrey Jaap, the digital specialist at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. Financial support was scarce at first, so Roberts supplied the heavy-duty machinery needed to tame the mountain. Lee built the statue’s right hand first, all eight feet and hundreds of pounds of it, around Mother’s Day of 1982. Its grandeur quickly stoked local imagination. While “many thought it was crude,” Lee writes, “the donations still poured in.”
Slowly, the pieces fell into place. The Anaconda Company, a behemoth trust that once owned mines from Butte to Mexico and Chile, sold the builders a “load of pipe” for just a few hundred dollars and let them use $250,000 in road-clearing equipment for free. At one point, the builders thought they would have to shutter the project for lack of fuel. But in what Lee called an “unexplainable” moment, the workers discovered a fleet of Anaconda Company trucks full of diesel, oil and antifreeze. The company, which was winding down operations, didn’t miss the dozen 50-gallon barrels the workers loaded up each night, amassing thousands of gallons of gas to fuel their dream — a stroke of good fortune some attributed to divine intervention.
Six years later, the day finally came to transport the statue up to its lofty new home. The project had gone national: Ronald Reagan wrote a letter calling it “a splendid expression of faith and cooperation.” Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, Montana Sen. John Melcher and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger helped secure a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter from the Nevada Air National Guard to help with the heavy lifts, provided the builders covered fuel and living costs for the pilots. The pieces, four in total, were airlifted as city residents watched from below. Disaster was narrowly avoided when the chopper nearly dropped the Lady’s midriff. But after another try, the statue was completed.
Today, two-hour round-trip bus tours escort visitors up the mountain. And while the promotional literature admits it’s “built in the likeness of Mary, Mother of Jesus,” the builders started calling the statue nondenominational and “a symbol for women everywhere.” Over the years, the religious undertones have led to squabbles and claims of miracles. The latter started with the stories about the gassed-up trucks and prayers before the Lady began being attributed to other healings. Even the Catholic bishop of Helena asked the builders to stop talking about mystical happenings, because “cults could be attracted and problems could arise,” Lee recounts.
But those looking for signs were missing the point; the message was already clear. Putting the statue atop the mountain showed “that Butte still had determined people who did not lie down and die,” Lee writes. “They proved that by coming together, they can accomplish miracles.”
(Efforts to reach the O’Bill family for comment were unsuccessful.)