The Butte Mine Disaster

Good morning, it’s Monday, June 12, 2017. One hundred years ago today, U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing landed in France, to the great relief of America’s war-weary allies, most specifically the French and the British.

Halfway across the world, in the Montana mining town of Butte, another kind of meeting was taking place. This gathering underscored not just the danger of hard-rock mining in the American West, but the vagaries of an immigrant nation involving itself in Europe’s “Great War.”

Ostensibly, the raucous meeting in Butte’s Finlander Hall took place to call a general strike days after a horrifying mining disaster caused a frightful loss of life. And the two circumstances — the fighting in France and the tragedy half a mile below the ground in Montana, along with the ensuing political unrest — were directly related, as everyone in Butte was acutely aware.

The price of copper had doubled, while wages had stayed stagnant, leading to general labor strife across the West. America’s entry into World War I ratcheted up the pressure: To feed the war machine, Montana’s mining operations went into 24-hour shifts. This meant many inexperienced men were in the mines, most of them immigrants from the countries at war across the ocean.

As author Michael Punke noted in “Fire and Brimstone,” his account of the Granite Mountain disaster that claimed 165 lives, the “no smoking” signs at the entrance of the mine shaft were printed in 16 languages. The miners lived in a community roiled by political tension stemming from World War I and the accompanying military draft enacted in Washington. The short-hand used at the time was that the Finns were socialists, the Irish didn’t side with Britain — while Germans, Italians, and Serbs didn’t like the idea of going back to Europe to fight their own people. Home-grown American pacifists and political radicals didn’t support fighting in that war at all, and Russian immigrants were divided between czarists and communists.

The whole ethnic cauldron came to a boil in Montana, but the one thing you couldn’t say about the miners was that they were cowards. Their jobs were as dangerous as being in “Black Jack” Pershing’s army. The men of North Butte Mining Co. proved their bravery the night of June 8-9, 1917, and in the harrowing days of daring rescue attempts that followed. They also revealed something else: Regardless of their politics or where they came from originally, these men were Americans first, to use a phrase, who risked their lives — and in some cases, gave their lives — to save their fellow miners.

The tragic irony of the June 1917 Butte mining disaster is that the underground fire that began half a mile below the bright blue Montana sky began because the company was trying to install an underground sprinkler system — for the safety of its crews.

This mine, one of the few in that region not owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., also had two adjacent shafts, which allowed for clearer air flow to the miners. The problem was that, when a fire broke out, the superior ventilation meant fire could spread faster and more lethally.

The disaster was set in motion late in the day on June 8, when a 1,200-foot electric cable, weighing three-quarters of a ton, was being lowered into the Granite Mountain shaft. As the workers were nearly finished, the crew noticed a kink in the last 200 feet of the cable. In attempting to uncoil it, they inadvertently pulled the cable down. The men scrambled to safety before it landed on them, but by then they’d worked 18 straight hours and were in no condition to do anything except return to the surface and report what had happened.

At 11:30 p.m., assistant foreman Ernest Sullau took three men with him in a hoist car to inspect the cable. During its plunge, the protective sheathing on the heavy electric cable had torn off, exposing its oil-soaked insulation. It was essentially a giant blowtorch, ready to be ignited, which is exactly what Sullau did inadvertently when he inspected it too closely while wearing his carbide lamp.

As fire raged in that tunnel, crews scrambled to get out or searched for side tunnels where they could build bulkheads in hopes of being rescued before their oxygen ran out or they were overcome by toxic gases.

In the end, 166 men perished. Among the casualties were Ernest Sullau, who escaped initially but went back down at least twice more to rescue others. He made it to the top one last time, but died from smoke inhalation despite the furious efforts of doctors. Numerous other stories of heroism made their way to the surface with the survivors.

Thirty-year-old Manus Duggan, a native of Pennsylvania, “coaxed and harangued” 28 other men to stay put for 36 hours behind a hastily built bulkhead. When their air ran low, he and three others took one path hoping to reach the top, while the remaining 25 went another way. Duggan and his three compatriots were never found; the other 25 made it out alive.

Shift boss James D. Moore persuaded seven men to hold out behind another bulkhead for 55 hours until they were rescued. He wrote letters to his new wife, explaining their predicament, detailing his last will and testament, and advising her that if he didn’t make it out alive she would return to the West Coast where her family lived. He asked her to trust in God, told her he loved her more than anyone on Earth, and expressed dismay about a young miner trapped with them named Clarence Marthey who “has a wife and two kiddies.”

“Tell her we done the best we could,” he wrote, “but the cards were against us.”

Histories of the Butte tragedy give slightly different death tolls, owing to minor confusion about the spelling of names and the identity of two or three men who got out — or who didn’t. In a recent attempt to get the list exactly right, Tracy Thornton of The Missoulian newspaper underwent an exhaustive search of the records, and has produced the most accurate accounting so far.

She has the names and home states or home countries of the dead, which she puts at 166, and, if possible, where they are buried. Most were laid to rest in Butte, but Jim Moore’s body accompanied his wife to California. He is buried in San Francisco. The fallen miners came from many states and 17 foreign countries: Austria, Bohemia, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Scotland, Sweden.

Some of the anomalies in the death toll speak to the rough nature of life in that place and time. A man named Charles Foster, Thornton notes, is on some of the lists and he did die in that mine — but a year earlier. John Lusa, a 40-year-old native of Finland, wound up on one list, probably because his name is similar to another Finn who died, Jani Liso. But John Lusa was actually shot and killed by a Butte police officer the same night of the disaster.

Thornton found other interesting facts as well. The most common country of origin for the miners was Ireland, but most were from County Mayo, not Cork, as originally reported. Three unrelated men named Murphy died in the Butte mine, along with three who pronounced their name “Daugherty,” although they didn’t all spell it the same way. Two sets of brothers perished, and two men named Erickson, although one was Swedish, the other Finnish.

The point is that they died here, in the country they chose, as Americans.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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