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Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Somehow, as Sullau clung to the timbers, probing into the darkness, his lantern came into contact with the exposed cloth on the cable. It burst into flames. Reflexively, Sullau recoiled his lantern arm—sparking a second set of flames behind him.

“John!” Sullau yelled to Baldy. “I got my lamp too close!”

Baldy clambered around to Sullau’s position and the two men worked furiously to stamp out the first set of flames. For an instant it seemed to work. But then, remembered Baldy, the fire “immediately broke out in the cable on the opposite side.” Furiously they flailed at this second outbreak, but the fire by now was taking on a life of its own.

The flames spread rapidly through the tangled cable, the frayed wire like a 1,200-foot fuse. To make matters worse, the Granite Mountain shaft had a powerful downdraft. Under normal circumstances, air circulated down the Granite Mountain shaft, then traveled sideways through numerous “crosscuts” to its sister shaft, the Speculator. The Spec, an updraft, drew the air back up to the surface. Air in this system moved at a breezy 200 to 300 feet per minute, making the Granite Mountain and Speculator shafts among the best ventilated in Butte.

This circulation, normally beneficial, now turned deadly. In the initial moments after flames broke out, the Granite Mountain downdraft sucked the fire into the mass of cable, then fanned the growing conflagration.

Sullau and Baldy, fearful for their lives, scrambled back in the cage, signaling the surface furiously to be lifted up to the 2,400 Station. The cage responded at once—pulling them up fifty feet to the station. A blunt-faced, big-handed miner named Albert Cobb was one of several men working at the 2,400 that night. “I had just pulled out of the 2,400 of the Granite Mountain with a load of rock.”

Sullau threw open the cage door and jumped out. Baldy, remaining in the cage, signaled the surface to pull him and the two other men to the top. The cage disappeared as Sullau yelled desperately to Albert Cobb, “Give me your bucket quick.”

Another man in the station knocked the top off of a ten-gallon drinking keg and carried it toward the shaft. The fire, though, was already far beyond buckets. “Before we could get over to the shaft,” Cobb would later report, “the smoke was coming up in frightful fashion.”

The heat of the flames and the smoke they threw off reversed the Granite Mountain draft. The downdraft, which had initially sucked the fire downward, turned updraft. Now pulled from above, the fire began to race up the half mile of shaft above the 2,400 Station—feeding on the tinder-dry, chemically treated timbers.

Sullau began to confront the enormity of his mistake. “For God’s sake, get the men out!” he yelled. “Get ’em out!”

Baldy Collins and the two other men reached the surface and piled out of the cage. The fire, they knew, would burn quickly up the wooden shaft. Speed was essential if they were to save the men working below. Desperately they set to work, attaching additional cages to the hoist lines so that more men could be lifted at a time.

Two of the men assisting Baldy on the surface were Peter Sheridan and Mike Conroy. Sheridan and Conroy were “station tenders” responsible for the 2,200 Station. A fire, they knew from Baldy, had broken out only a few hundred feet below the 2,200—their station, where their men were at work. The tenders argued with Baldy to be lowered down in an effort to bring the men up. Baldy refused, worried now that the hoist’s electric signaling system might not be working. He ordered the two men to stay on the surface until he had a chance to consult with the engineer who operated the hoist—two hundred feet away, out of sight, on the inside of the engine room. Baldy turned and ran for the engine room.

Before Baldy could reach the engineer, Sheridan and Conroy took matters into their own hands, signaling to be lowered to the 2,200 Station. A third man, Con McLafferty, jumped onboard with them.

The cage dropped into the shaft.

The Granite Mountain shaft had four electric signal systems through which the men on the surface could communicate with the men in the depths of the mine. By midnight—only fifteen minutes after Ernest Sullau’s lantern set the cable ablaze—the roaring shaft fire had destroyed all four.

The communication system was critical to the operation of the hoists, and the severance of signal lines had immediate and horrific consequences.

By the time Sheridan, Conroy, and McLafferty reached the 2,200 Station, the fire was close enough to the cage that McLafferty jumped out and “refused to take the chance of going up.” Instead, he retreated into the mine workings at the 2,200 level, ultimately surviving to tell the tale.

Sheridan and Conroy must have calculated that they could still outrun the flames aboard the hoist. Like hundreds of other men at work in the mine that night, the two station tenders made snap judgments that sealed their fate. To signal the engineer on the surface to pull them up, they would have attempted to ring the bell—unaware that the ruined electrical wires kept their desperate signal from reaching the surface. By now the fire was virtually exploding up the shaft. Within a few instants, Sheridan and Conroy were enveloped in flames.

On the surface, the engineer, with Baldy at his side, became increasingly uneasy.

From the station where he operated the levers that raised and lowered the hoists, the engineer watched a giant gauge that showed the position of the cage—sitting at the 2,200 Station. But there had been no signal to raise it. The miners communicated with the surface in a sort of abbreviated version of Morse code. In each station was a cord with a large handle. Pulling the cord completed an electrical circuit, ringing a bell in the hoist house. There was a specific call to indicate that the cage was clear: two bells, pause, one bell, pause, two bells. Once the engineer heard this signal, he knew it was safe to move the cage. In those minutes around midnight, though, he heard nothing from the men on the 2,200.

At about that time smoke started to pour from the Granite Mountain shaft. Frantically, the engineer raised the cage.

By the time it emerged from the collar, the cage was surrounded by fire “flying from the shaft like a gigantic torch.” The engineer stopped the cage about forty feet above the surface, dangling from the gallows headframe atop a “geyser of flames.” Horrified witnesses could see the charred remains of Sheridan and Conroy, locked in a “death embrace.”

In its coverage of the incident, the Butte Miner attempted to reassure its readers with the assertion that “the terrific heat without doubt quickly snuffed out the lives of the two station tenders,” though it also noted that the victims were found “with arms and feet burned away.” Other accounts were even more graphic. The Butte Daily Post reported that Sheridan and Conroy were “burned almost to a crisp” and that “even the hair and flesh on their heads [was] gone, so that their skulls were laid bare.”

The flames and heat from the fire made it impossible for onlookers to approach the cage. Eventually enough water was poured into the shaft so that two firemen, Angus McLeod and George Lapp, could at least remove the bodies.

With the fire and death at the mouth of Granite Mountain, few onlookers would have noticed what happened at 12:10 A.M., when smoke began to rise from the Speculator shaft—800 feet away.

Ernest Sullau could not see the Speculator shaft from his position near the Granite Mountain’s 2,400 Station. He didn’t need to. As a veteran of the North Butte Mining Company, Sullau understood intuitively the interconnection between the Granite Mountain and the Spec.

Butte sat atop a labyrinth made up of thousands of miles of underground mining works.

The North Butte’s holdings illustrate a small portion of this subterranean world. Its two main shafts—Granite Mountain and the Speculator—ran straight down, each with its own headframe and hoist system to transport men and ore. The two shafts stood 800 feet apart, connected by at least ten crosscut tunnels. If the mine is compared to a human body, the shafts and crosscuts were like main arteries. Branching off of these arteries were hundreds of smaller veins and capillaries. There were “drifts”—horizontal excavations to remove ore; “stopes”—excavations in the shape of a step; and “manways”—man-size, vertical shafts with a ladder inside that allowed men to climb up and down between different levels.

And all of that was just the property of the North Butte Mining Company. The Granite Mountain and the Spec connected directly, at multiple levels, to five other mines, which were owned by Anaconda.

Ernest Sullau knew that the deadly consequences of the fire—his fire—would not be contained in one shaft, or even in one mine. The smoke and fumes spewing forth from the Granite Mountain shaft would spread throughout the far-flung recesses of this underground world, where hundreds of men were at work. Sullau also knew something else—that the fumes were filled with deadly gas.

There is no doubt that at this juncture, minutes after the start of the fire, Ernest Sullau could have saved himself. Though the main shaft was ablaze and its hoist no longer a viable option, other clear avenues of escape were within easy reach.

With his long years of experience, Sullau knew the mine workings as well as the streets surrounding his own home.

There is no record of his thoughts as Ernest Sullau made the decision that sealed his own fate that night, but we know he did not run away.

Three (#ulink_4024e68d-9884-5e11-b25c-634fd943e2e2)

“THE RICHEST HILL ON EARTH” (#ulink_4024e68d-9884-5e11-b25c-634fd943e2e2)

No one knows it yet, but I have discovered the richest hill on earth.

—ATTRIBUTED TO COPPER KING MARCUS DALY

In the spring of 1856, a small party led by Caleb E. Irvine camped on a high plain below a distinctive butte near the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. They were traders, not miners, but they made a discovery that hinted at the future of the hill on which they stood. Near their camp, Irvine discovered a deep trench, dug into an outcropping of exposed quartz. Next to the trench were elk antlers, apparently used as gads to scrape out the hole.

Who dug the hole and what if anything they found were never discovered. As Irvine and his men pondered the mystery, a band of hostile Blackfoot Indians approached their position, and the traders beat a quick retreat toward the more hospitable country of the Shoshoni and the Crow.

The real discovery of Butte would come as a consequence of the decline in California’s supply of “placer” gold. Placer gold was “poor man’s diggings”—dust and nuggets close to the surface, ready to be scooped up by methods of no greater sophistication than a metal pan or a wooden sluice. As California’s gold industry shifted from placers to more industrialized forms of removal in the mid-1850s, the “forty-niners” began to search for new prospects. They turned inland and by the early 1860s had developed placer strikes in Idaho and Colorado.

In 1862, as the Civil War raged back east, wandering argonauts turned up the first substantial gold strike in what is now Montana. The location of the gold was a small rivulet called Grasshopper Creek. Within a year, miners unearthed an even larger deposit about seventy miles away at a site they dubbed “Alder Gulch.” Now the real rush was on. Eighteen months later, ten thousand men were sifting every creek bed between the boomtowns of Bannock and Virginia City.

Among the young miners who joined the gold rush to Montana was a skinny, conniving, blindly ambitious twenty-four-year-old named William A. Clark. As much as any man, Clark would rise to shape a critical, rollicking epoch of western history. His origins, though, were humble; he was born of Scotch-Irish parents on a Pennsylvania farm. The Clark family moved to Iowa, where William continued a solid education that included two years of legal study at Iowa Wesleyan College.

Clark worked as a schoolteacher in Missouri and apparently fought briefly with the Confederate Army before deciding to seek his fortune in the West. Prospects already were fading by the time the young man reached the Colorado mines in 1862, and after working as a “$2.50 a day laborer,” Clark headed for the new strikes in Montana. With a partner, he staked a claim near Bannock. They built a log cabin and sluices and, after only a year, sold their property for a healthy profit of $2,000 each. For Clark, this initial stake would grow into a fortune of $47 million and make him one of the richest men in the world.

Clark’s early wealth, though, would not come from gold—at least not directly. Like many financial giants of the mining era, Clark’s initial success lay not in the mines—but in the miners. With his $2,000 in profits from sluicing gold, he bought mules and began moving freight between Salt Lake and the Montana boomtowns, carrying shovels, picks, tobacco, and even eggs. His goods, according to Clark, sold for “extraordinarily high prices.”

With his profits he moved into wholesaling, mail transport, and then banking. By the age of thirty-three he was a millionaire and one of the leading financiers in what had become the Territory of Montana. “[E]verything he touched seemed to turn to gold.”

“Turn to copper” might have more accurately described Clark’s career, for it was not the yellow metal, but the red, that would ultimately create the great bulk of his fortune. Nor was it the soon-to-be ghost town of Bannock with which Clark’s name would forever be tied—but Butte.

The first true mining in what was soon to become Butte occurred in the summer of 1864, as Bannock and Virginia City miners began to spread out into untapped areas. Two men, named William Allison and G. O. Humphreys, decided to dig deeper in the shallow pit—the one beside the elk-horn gads—discovered by trader Caleb Irvine eight years earlier. Allison and Humphreys carried dirt from the pit down to Silver Bow Creek to wash it, and in their pans they found gold. They named their site “Baboon Gulch,” though this soon gave way to a more stately appellation reflecting the distinctive nearby hill. “Butte City” was born. (“City” was later dropped.)

By 1867, five thousand miners were spread out below the butte and along the meandering Silver Bow Creek. Butte’s naissance as a gold mining camp alloyed the town with characteristics from which it would never separate—not that it wanted to. It was a harsh and dangerous place, where efforts to earn a living came often at the cost of men’s lives. An eastern reporter, as horrified as his modern counterparts by the West’s attachment to firearms, had this to say about the camp: “Every businessman in Butte and every miner is a walking arsenal. He carries a brace or two of pistols in his belt and a Bowie knife in his right boot.”

The harsh winters and unsanitary living conditions created a breeding ground for disease, and in mining camps such as Butte “it was a fair estimate that ten percent would die between the months of September and May.” Frozen ground made it difficult to bury the dead, so log stockades were sometimes constructed to protect the bodies from the indignity of consumption by wild animals.

With the possibility of death never far removed, miners seized zealously upon the crude opportunities for frontier recreation—centered around the unholy trinity of alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes. Gold might remain elusive for some miners, but the staples of vice seemed to spring up from the soil like weeds. In the vast literature about Butte, no description is repeated more often than “wide open.” The same eastern reporter who blanched at Butte’s walking arsenals had this description of early Butte entertainment: “Bronchos are ridden into public and private houses as it suits their drunken riders. Men, women, negroes, Chinese and Indians daily and nightly congregate in one common assemblage around the gaming tables with which the dissolute, hilarious camp abounds.”

If there is exaggeration in the reporter’s description, it most likely concerns the degree of tolerance it implies. Butte would become a melting pot of remarkable ethnic diversity, but “negroes, Chinese and Indians”—while certainly present—were not among those welcomed into the bubbling stew. Butte’s first hanging, for example, took place when a miner named Dan Haffie decided to lynch a Chinese “just for luck.”

As in most placer camps, the presence of Butte’s easy gold did not last long. By 1870, Butte’s population had dwindled to 241 souls—98 of whom were Chinese. The high percentage of Chinese indicated the perceived poor quality of the workings. Throughout the West, Chinese often found opportunities in the abandoned claims of less patient miners.

Among those few who stayed in Butte, interest by the late 1860s had begun to shift from gold to another precious metal—silver. The presence of silver had long been obvious in Butte. Black “reefs” pushed through the surface in many places, a clear indication of the potential wealth below. Silver, though, required a different type of mining and a different type of miner. Unlike placer gold—which could be scooped up in pure form by a man with a pan—silver required considerable industry. Deep shafts had to be sunk in the rocky ground. Milling was necessary to crush the ore into a more workable form. And it took smelting to separate the silver from crushed ore. Butte’s silver, though plentiful, was notoriously “rebellious,” meaning the silver itself was difficult to extract from the surrounding rock. In short, the production of silver required technology and capital.

It was during these early days of Butte’s silver mining that the merchant-banker William A. Clark stepped back into the picture. By the early 1870s, the base of Clark’s burgeoning frontier enterprises was a bank in Deer Lodge, Montana, less than forty miles from Butte. When he visited the remnants of Butte in 1872, his remarkable eye for investment told him that there was great potential in the largely abandoned town. Clark bought four claims outright and would later begin financing the operations of other silver enthusiasts. Demonstrating an attribute that served him well throughout his life, Clark embraced change. With samples from his new Butte properties, he traveled to New York City and enrolled at the renowned Columbia University School of Mines. At age thirty-three, William Clark was about to launch a new career in silver mining.

Silver would bring Butte back to life. And with silver would come critical components of the later copper industry: capital, technology, and a stout Irishman who would soon lock horns with William Clark in one of the most dramatic feuds in American history.

Marcus Daly was born in 1841 in Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, Ireland. Like his enemy William Clark—in fact, to an even greater degree—Daly’s life story reads like a Horatio Alger tale. As a child, his family endured the hardships of the potato famine, and young Marcus watched his countrymen abandon the Emerald Isle by the drove.

At the age of fifteen, Marcus emigrated—alone and penniless—to New York City. In New York he worked for five years in a variety of jobs, including errand boy at a commission house, hostler in a livery stable, telegraph operator, and finally as a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks. Perhaps through his connections on the docks, Daly in 1861 managed to gain passage on a ship to Panama. From there, he traversed the malarial isthmus and then continued by land up the coast to San Francisco.

In California he worked for a time on ranches and farms but soon followed a friend into mining. For a while he tried his hand at placers, eventually gravitating toward work in established mines. By 1862, Daly landed at Nevada’s mighty Comstock—the greatest silver mine in history and the largest, most sophisticated operation of its day.

It was at the Comstock that Daly truly learned the trade of mining: how to recognize fruitful veins; how to tunnel; how to timber; how to blast. His growing talent was rewarded with promotion to shift boss, and Daly would add to his skills the intangible quality of leadership. Throughout his career—in sharp contrast with his rival William Clark—Daly would be known as a miner’s miner, a benevolent dictator beloved by his men.

It was during his time in Nevada that Daly also forged important relationships—from his reporter friend Samuel Clemens (not yet writing under his later pen name of Mark Twain) to George Hearst, his eventual financier and partner. The West of the 1860s was a dynamic, booming place. Potential for a talented young man seemed boundless, and Daly made the most of every opportunity.
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