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Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Twenty-four: “SOME LITTLE BODY OF MEN” (#litres_trial_promo)

Twenty-five: “DOWN DEEP” (#litres_trial_promo)

Epilogue: “NORMAL FOR ITS TIME” (#litres_trial_promo)

Notes (#litres_trial_promo)

Index (#litres_trial_promo)

Acknowledgments (#litres_trial_promo)

Also by Michael Punke (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

One (#ulink_cc20ef33-ba00-5d5f-a2df-f18ec2a66c7b)

“THERE IS A SIGN” (#ulink_cc20ef33-ba00-5d5f-a2df-f18ec2a66c7b)

There is a sign that appears to point persistently to a terrible explosion underground.


Butte, Montana, was still dark when the cable crew arrived at the Granite Mountain shaft in the early morning hours of Friday, June 8, 1917. The men could see their breath as they worked in the cold, open air beneath the headframe—a hulking, eight-story steel structure that supported the massive weight of the hoists. The miners called it a “gallows frame” because it looked like a gigantic industrial version of the Old West hangman’s platform. Gallows frames dotted the sprawling hillside like Butte’s version of trees.

The official accident report does not list the names of the men on the crew that morning, but it is a good bet they were a motley mix—the no smoking signs that hung around the mine shaft were printed in sixteen languages. The report does provide the men’s job titles, titles that reflect the task before them: “four electricians, three rope-men, two shaft-men, and one hoist-man.”

The worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history began, ironically, as an effort to improve the safety of the Granite Mountain shaft. Granite Mountain, along with its sister shaft, the Speculator, were owned by the North Butte Mining Company. The two mines were rarities—productive Butte properties not owned by the omnipotent Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Anaconda did own all of the properties that surrounded the North Butte holdings. Anaconda, indeed, owned most of the city and a sizable chunk of the state.

By the lax standards of the day, the North Butte Mining Company boasted a considerable reputation for safety. The cable crew’s work on the morning of June 8 was part of an effort to install a sprinkler system up and down Granite Mountain’s 3,700-foot shaft. The shaft was buttressed with chemically treated wooden timbers. In a fire, this highly flammable lining was the functional equivalent of a chimney made of wood. The new sprinkler system, though, was nearly complete. In a week or so, a shaft fire could be doused by simply turning a valve.

One of the few tasks remaining was to relocate a large electrical transformer at the 2,600-foot Station. “Stations” were cavernous openings at hundred-foot intervals and were the junctions between the main shaft and the hundreds of tunnels that branched out from it. The 2,600 Station, therefore, was 2,600 feet below the surface, or “collar,” of the shaft.

The transformer at the 2,600 Station stood only fifty feet from the wood-timbered shaft. Worried that an electrical fire could easily spread, mine officials had decided to move the transformer to a safer location—deeper inside the workings of the mine and well away from the main shaft. The electrical cable that connected it to the surface, however, was too short. The job assigned to the crew was to lower a long cable that could reach the transformer’s new location.

In the era before plastic, electrical wire was commonly insulated with oil-soaked cloth, usually cambric or jute. In industrial settings such as a mine, the cloth was then sheathed in lead for protection. The new 1,200-foot electrical cable being lowered into Granite Mountain was a full five inches in diameter and weighed five pounds per foot, putting its total mass at a staggering three tons.

The narrow five-by-sixteen-foot main shaft contained three hoists—side-by-side elevator cages that could be operated independently of one another. The cages were controlled by a “hoist-man” on the surface. Two of the hoists were dedicated to pulling up lodes of copper ore from the depths of the mine. The other cage, called a “chippy,” was used to transport men and materials. The men in the shaft’s various stations communicated with the hoist-man through a complicated system of electric-powered bell signals.

To lower the new cable into the Granite Mountain shaft, the crew planned to use the mechanical strength of the third hoist, the chippy. This necessitated the labor-intensive act of lashing the cable to the chippy’s lowering rope (the rope on which the cage itself was pulled up and down). As the first 500 feet of cable was lowered, the crew tied the cable and the lowering rope together with hemp lashes at ten-foot intervals. After the first 500 feet, the crew tied lashes every five feet to compensate for the ever-increasing weight.

By the time the entire cable was tied to the chippy’s rope, nearly 200 lashes were in place.

The crew had worked for sixteen straight hours before the lower end of the cable finally came even with the 2,600 Station. Sometime before 8:00 P.M., the men were about ready to begin threading the cable toward the site for the new transformer when they noticed a problem. The bottom 200 feet of cable appeared to be “coiled around the hoisting rope.” Before snaking the cable into the 2,600 Station, the crew decided to make an attempt at straightening out the kinks.

One of the men came up with the idea of removing some of the lower lashings. The hope was that the three-ton cable, if freed from its lower bindings to the hoisting rope, would untwist itself—the way kinks unwind from a tangled telephone cord.

The details of how the crew went about releasing the hemp ties are vague. It appears, however, that two or more of the men scaled the shaft walls and began cutting or untying the lashings. Adding to the precariousness of their task was the fact that the hoisting rope was smeared with lubricant to help it spool and unspool more easily.

Whether or not the kinks began to unwind is unclear. What is clear is that as the men of the cable crew worked around 8:00 P.M. on Friday night, they noticed that the three-ton cable suspended above them was slipping. Then, in a heart-sinking moment, they realized it was falling down.

The crew made a mad scramble for cover and “had scarcely reached the safety on the station before the cable fell.” As they huddled in the 2,600 Station—which opened directly to the shaft—the men heard and felt the thunderous roar of the falling cable. It bounced and scraped for hundreds of feet along the timbers of the narrow shaft, ripping every impediment in its path. Air hoses and water pipes were pulled off their brackets, adding the high-pitched scream of twisting metal. Finally the cable became caught in the shaft, piling up in a giant, tangled clump between the 2,400 and 2,800 levels—above, below, and beside the cringing cable crew at the 2,600 Station.

There must have been a palpable pause when the crashing finally stopped, one of those suddenly quiet, postcalamity moments in which accident victims take shocked inventory of themselves and their surroundings. Eventually the crew moved hesitantly toward the shaft, their lanterns barely able to penetrate the thick dust thrown up by the falling cable.

The cable was ruined. The violent fall had scraped away half of the lead sheathing, exposing large sections of the oil-soaked cloth insulation. After they inspected the snarled pile, it was obvious to the men that the giant wire could no longer carry an electrical current.

By then it was 10:00 P.M., and the crew had been working for eighteen straight hours. In no mood to begin the difficult task of removing the ruined cable, they headed for the surface.

Burton K. “B.K.” Wheeler, Butte’s thirty-five-year-old federal district attorney, was a man in an unenviable position. Wheeler’s job was to enforce federal law, and Butte, Montana, on the eve of the North Butte disaster was a volatile, messy jumble of antiwar protest, an abusive corporate master, seething labor unrest, divisive ethnic tension, and radicalism both left and right. It was a powder keg lacking only a spark, and in the days surrounding the disaster, multiple conflicts would converge and explode. B.K. Wheeler would ride through the center of this firestorm, then carry its legacy in the decades to follow.

Only two months earlier, in April 1917, the United States had waded into the bloody fray of World War I. For Butte, one immediate effect of the conflict was the widening of ethnic fissures. Butte was a microcosm of Europe, and Europe was at war. German immigrants opposed fighting against their recent homeland, where many of their families still lived. The English and the French, by contrast, cheered America’s alignment with their countrymen. The Irish, with historical animosity toward England, stood in bitter opposition to an American alliance with the British. The Finns, strongly socialist, saw the war as a scheme to “break the power of the people of Russia.”

War also led to an increase in immigration from eastern and southern Europe, and all of Butte’s then-current inhabitants resented the influx of Italians and Slavs, who as the newest wave of immigrants were willing to work for the lowest wages.

Leftists marched in opposition to the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” and plotted the downfall of the capitalist system. Rightists launched a hunt for “Shadow Huns” and changed the names of German foods. In the approved parlance, hamburger became Salisbury steak, frankfurters became hot dogs, and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.

An early flashpoint in Butte centered on registration for a new draft, with Registration Day falling on June 5, 1917—only three days before the North Butte disaster. Butte war opponents, led by the Finns and Irish, circulated handbills screaming “WAR IS HELL. WE DO NOT WANT IT” and “DO NOT REGISTER.” “[W]e are,” warned the handbills, “at the behest of the money powers, to be taken forcibly to kill and be killed.”

The draft even threatened to reignite problems with the Indians. Butte newspapers ran a wire story reporting that antiwar protesters included the Cheyenne, who were “holding war dances and threatening violences.”

The responsibility to enforce the draft law seemed an odd match for District Attorney B.K. Wheeler. As a Quaker, he had his own considerable misgivings about American involvement in the war and had established his young career by representing Butte’s working-class men—usually against “the money powers.” Yet as the federal district attorney, Wheeler took seriously his responsibility to enforce the law and issued a tough statement on the eve of Registration Day. “Any man within the draft age who is heard making the remark that he will not register will be warned during the day by the Attorney’s force. If he has not registered by nine P.M., he will be taken promptly to jail.”

Wheeler’s tough tone dissuaded some but not all. On Registration Day, a group of Finns and Irish led a protest march of as many as 2,500 people. Antiwar speeches were delivered in English and in Finnish before the Butte mayor addressed the crowd (from the top of a building), demanding it disperse. The order was met with jeering and boos that quickly degenerated into rioting, leading police and sheriff’s deputies to fire shots into the air and then wade into the crowd with clubs and long nightsticks. When the rioters still failed to disperse, the National Guard was called in. Forty soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets “came at a run” from an encampment on the edge of town. Finally the riot broke up, with twenty men and one woman arrested.

“The draft riots were forgotten three days later when fire broke out,” remembered Wheeler.

Forgotten for a time, though the riot offered a preview of the broader ramifications of the disaster that was about to erupt—a disaster that would envelop Wheeler’s long career in ways that he could not possibly foresee.

As they ascended the shaft, the members of the cable crew no doubt felt a mixture of relief and trepidation. They knew they were lucky to be alive, but there would be serious consequences for their role in ruining a valuable piece of mine property. The cable cost more than $5,000—the equivalent of a year’s wage for four men.

What the cable crew could not know was that the events they had set in motion would stretch far beyond a $5,000 electrical wire. In less than two hours, hundreds of men would be locked in a desperate struggle to survive. In less than three days, 163 of them would be dead.

Nor would the death and destruction be limited to the mines.

Before the last chapter was written, the legacy of the disaster would include murder, a crippling strike, an ethnic and political witch hunt, a national law effectively suspending the First Amendment, and an epic battle over presidential power. Butte, Montana, sits in the heart of the American West—but this is the story of a very different frontier.

Daylight had come and gone when the cable crew reached the surface, late in the evening of June 8, 1917. The men reported the lost cable to Ernest Sullau, the assistant foreman. Sullau had just arrived at work, and the responsibility for pulling the ruined cable from the shaft would fall to him. Mine operations ran round the clock, and Sullau headed up the graveyard shift.

Two (#ulink_7f742f7c-7845-5da5-9bf4-d01d01e60a5d)

“LIKE A GIGANTIC TORCH” (#ulink_7f742f7c-7845-5da5-9bf4-d01d01e60a5d)

An appalling sight which caused the strongest hearts to quail was the cremation of two men, Mike Conway [sic] and [Peter]Sheridan, station tenders, who were trapped like rats in a double decked cage, about twenty feet above the collar of the shaft, with the flames flying from the shaft like a gigantic torch around them.


The miners who worked for forty-eight-year-old Ernest Sullau called him “Sully.” Just about everybody in Butte, it seems, had a nickname.

Sullau was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Christmas Day 1868. He came to America as a “small boy” and spent most of his adult life as a miner, including stints chasing gold in Klondike and Nome. When he arrived in Montana around 1897, he first worked as a placer miner—sifting small claims of his own. By 1900, though, Sullau gave up his quest for the big strike, opting instead for the steady wages of industrial mining. By 1917, he was a seasoned, fifteen-year veteran of the North Butte Mining Company’s Speculator and Granite Mountain mines.

While Sullau never got rich, the stability he found in Butte’s mines brought him other benefits. In 1911, at the age of forty-two, Sullau married Lena Benson, a woman unabashed in her affection for her husband. “He was the best man that ever lived,” she said. “When the twenty-to-six car came I knew he would be on it.” Through his hard work and experience with the North Butte Mining Company, Sullau had risen to the rank of assistant foreman. Between his respected position in the mine and his comfortable home life, Sullau had reached a “good place in life.”

Sullau’s task on the evening of June 8, 1917, was straightforward: Descend the mine in the auxiliary cage (which was not blocked by the ruined cable); find the top end of the cable; attach it to a hoisting rope; and pull it up. With the cable removed, an assessment could be made of the damage done to the shaft.

Already it was clear that the water supply to the lower reaches of Granite Mountain had been severed. Without water, the miners’ Leyner drills could not function. The men at the 3,000 level, unable to work, had gone home, no doubt grumbling about the wages they lost in a workday cut short.

Accompanying Sullau into the mine were a shift boss named John “Baldy” Collins and two shaft men. It was 11:30 P.M. when the four men crowded into the open cage and began their descent. Their destination was a point fifty feet below the 2,400 Station—where the top portion of the electrical cable had lodged.

The ride down, covering nearly half a mile, would have taken around five minutes. When the men finally came even with the tangled mass, there was no sign of the end of the cable. To search for it, Sullau and Baldy crawled out of the cage—edging perilously along the timbers on the side and center of the shaft. Sullau went one direction and Baldy went the other—with the web of cable in between them.

The Granite Mountain shaft measured 3,740 feet from top to bottom—the deepest in Butte. Though already 2,450 feet below the surface, the men were still a gut-churning 1,300-foot drop above the bottom of the shaft. Their position was the equivalent of hanging from the top of the Empire State Building—in the dark.

As Sullau gripped the shaft timbers, he also held tight to the carbide-burning lantern that every miner was required to buy. Though electric headlamps had been available since the turn of the century (and were widely used in coal mines), carbide lanterns saw far wider use through the 1920s. Improvements to electric lamps in the 1930s would make them brighter and less heavy, but before then, the weight of the batteries made them so bulky that miners didn’t like to carry them.

So as Ernest Sullau searched for the end of the ruined cable at 11:45 P.M., he held in his hand an open flame—not even a pane of glass enclosed the fire. The environment could hardly have been more volatile. The fall of the giant cable had scraped away half of its lead sheathing, exposing large sections of the highly flammable, oil-soaked cloth that insulated the wire. Boys who lived near the mines picked up scraps of this same type of electrical cable, stripping them to sell for the copper. The boys used their pocketknives to peel off the lead. To clean away the cloth, though, they simply touched it with a match. It burned “like gasoline.”
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