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Скачать книгу Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917

Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Soon, though, men began to fail. Some likely collapsed from the effects of the gas; some stumbled in the crosscut or tripped on rail tracks. At this point, some of the men were probably without their lights. Falling down could easily result in falling behind, and in the darkness, in their weakened state, falling behind could mean death. Six men were missing by the time the main group made the Badger shaft. They rang for the cage, which came immediately. “I never saw anything look so good as did the cage,” said Jovitich.

Remarkably, though, the young man did not climb aboard. The station tender asked for a volunteer to go back and find the missing men, and it was Jovitich who led him back into the gas-filled workings. “The smoke was bad and after I walked 500 feet my knees went out and I fell.”

Jovitich woke up in a hospital bed. “I wish I had been strong enough to save the others.”

Those men not fortunate enough to encounter Ernest Sullau or another experienced miner had to depend entirely on their own instincts. At the 2,200 level, for example, a young man named W. T. Wynder led a small group that first ran toward the Granite Mountain shaft. Others in the group included Wynder’s partner and “a Finlander” whose name is reported only as “Voko.”

As the group came closer and closer to the Granite Mountain shaft, they encountered a wall of smoke and fumes. In Wynder’s description, “That cloud was black as night.” They watched as men in front of them “dove right into that wave of poisonous fumes and every yard we went it became blacker and more terrible.” Then the draft that pushed the cloud blew out their lanterns, casting the men into total darkness. They dropped to the floor, feeling for the rail tracks to find their way.

Wynder realized that they were moving in the wrong direction. “Boys, she’s coming this way!” he yelled. “Turn back and we’ve got a chance!” Finally one of the men managed to light a match and Wynder was able to spark his carbide lantern. By this time, though, Wynder’s partner was gone. Apparently disoriented in the darkness, he had crawled in the wrong direction and was later found dead.

Others too began to panic. “I quit,” said the Finlander Voko. “I cash in my checks.” One of the other men punched Voko “to liven him up,” and the remnants of Wynder’s group—including the Finlander—fled back toward the Speculator. Most made it to safety.

Ernest Sullau was probably in the gas-filled workings of the mines for more than two hours. Though his precise path is unclear, it is estimated that the forty-eight-year-old covered more than three miles, “much of which was climbing up and down ladders.” He spread his warning throughout the lower levels of the mine and sent “at least fifty men to safety.”

There are conflicting accounts of Sullau’s push for the surface. The earliest account says he was leading a group of men through a connection in the Badger mine.

A later, more detailed account says he was leading men through the High Ore.

Whatever his precise location, both accounts agree on one central fact: Sullau had a final opportunity to flee the mine, but instead turned back.

He took this action fully aware of the potential consequences. According to a detailed story in the Anaconda Standard, three men grabbed Sullau and attempted to dissuade him from going back down, telling him it would mean death. But Sullau was determined to search for his friend Jack Bronson, the shift boss who earlier led other men (including the young Eastern European Mike Jovitich) up the long climb through the Speculator.

Bronson survived the fire, and it is possible that he was already safe on the surface when Sullau went back to look for him.

On the 600 level of the Speculator, just after midnight, a debate took place that must have been repeated throughout the upper workings on the night of the fire: two men arguing about the source of smoke. One, a Balkan miner named Chris Vukovich, believed it came from nearby blasting. His partner, Louie Muller, worried that the cause was more ominous. “That’s not powder smoke,” he told Vukovich. “It’s gas.”

Then a shift boss ran through, settling the debate with frightening certainty. “Run boys, it’s fire!”

Vukovich and Muller were two of the fifty-seven men working that night in the upper portions (between the 400 and 800 levels) of the Granite Mountain and Speculator mines. Thirty-one of these men—more than one half—would die, an even higher mortality rate than the lower portions of the mines.

Though they were closer to the surface and farther from the source of the fire, the miners in the upper levels were in some ways disadvantaged compared to the men at the greater depths. The upper levels did not connect to adjoining properties—the most successful route to safety for the men below. The other disadvantage for the men in the upper reaches was that none of them had any idea as to the source of the fire, smoke, and gas.

As for Muller and Vukovich, both initially climbed down a narrow manway ladder toward the 700 level. They most likely chose this direction because the 600 level had no connection to the Granite Mountain shaft, whereas the 700 did. Like so many others, they probably believed that the Granite Mountain hoist would provide their passage to safety. As they descended, though, the two partners and the other men with them encountered thickening smoke,

pouring through the crosscut from the Granite Mountain shaft. “[T]he smoke and gas nearly suffocated us,” reported Muller. “Somebody said to go back …”

There was panic on the ladder, with some miners seeking to go back up even as others piled down. In the manway as elsewhere, the men struggled to sort through the chaos, their responses as diverse as the number of miners in the mine. Some resigned themselves to death, begging stronger men to pass along notes to their families. Some shouted curses. Some whispered prayers. Most struggled forward, desperate to breathe again in the light of day.

Vukovich chose to keep climbing downward, and like almost every miner who went from the 600 to the 700 level, he was later found dead.

Whether through knowledge, intuition, or luck, Muller was among the survivors. Unlike his partner, Muller turned around and climbed back up to the 600 level, deciding to try for the 600 Station of the Speculator. As he ran toward the station through the 600 crosscut, he stumbled across a pile of seven bodies. Muller managed to carry three to the station before becoming too weak to go back.

Someone rang for the Speculator hoist. Unlike the Granite Mountain shaft, where fire burned out all wiring, the Speculator shaft still had electricity. At least one of the Speculator hoists, though it had not been in use due to shaft repairs, was still serviceable.

A few minutes after they called to the surface, the hoist appeared. Muller would be one of the thirty-two men who were lifted from the 600 and 400 Stations of the Speculator shaft—the only men taken alive through either the Speculator or Granite Mountain shafts in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Two other men in the upper levels, unable to outrun the pursuing gas, showed the innovation that desperation bred. Their names were John Boyce and John Camitz. Like many others working in the upper levels, they made an initial effort to escape via the 700 level. Like a lucky few, they managed to retreat from the 700 before they were overcome.

Instead of climbing up to the 600 level, however, Boyce and Camitz made their way into a wet drift, an excavation that branched off the 700 crosscut.

But they could not outrun the smoke and gas. The two men fell to the ground, unable to breathe. “We thought we surely must die,” said Boyce later.

“As I fell, half exhausted, to the ground, I felt the hose line carrying air.” It was, literally, a lifeline. By 1917, Butte mines used compressed air to power their drills, and dozens of similar hoses were strung throughout the workings. Although nearly blind from the smoke and “almost out of my head,” Boyce managed to cut two openings in the hose with his candlestick holder. “We lay there on the ground, our blouses pulled tight about our head, and sucked in that hose line air …”

For nearly four hours they held this tenuous position, sucking air from the hose even as the gas washed over and around them. Several times the two men pulled themselves upright, creeping back toward the 700 crosscut to see if the gas had cleared. It had not, and they quickly retreated to their prostrate position with the hose.

Around 5:00 A.M., events forced Boyce’s and Camitz’s hand: The air hose failed. With no other option, they began working their way toward the Speculator Station, stepping over the bodies of their fallen fellow-miners.

Many dead men were found with their blouses over their heads and their faces pressed to the ground, searching, it appeared, for that last breath of clear air.

Other dead men were found still gripping their lunch pails, overcome before they could grasp the full gravity of the danger that pursued them.

As they approached the Speculator Station, Boyce and Camitz saw the beacon of a rescuer’s light. The cage was called and the two men were whisked to the surface, “weakened by breathing gases, but able to walk at all times.”

Ernest Sullau almost made it. By the time he collapsed, he had cleared the property of the North Butte Mining Company and was ascending toward the surface through the adjoining Badger mine, leading a final group of miners to safety. For a while the other men dragged his limp body toward the surface, but finally they abandoned him, apparently afraid that their slower progress would cause them too to succumb to the gas.

On the surface, a gasping miner reported Sullau’s position to a growing group of rescuers. Fitted with primitive breathing apparatus, a crew descended the mine, located Sullau, and carried him to the surface. Though unconscious, Sullau was reportedly “still warm.” The rescuers placed him in the Badger mine’s “dry,” a room where miners changed clothing at the end of their shift.

A team of physicians, called to the mine in the minutes after the fire, launched a dramatic three-hour effort to save Sullau’s life. They were well equipped, quickly connecting the stricken miner to a machine called a pulmotor. A recent invention, the pulmotor was a portable respirator turned by a hand crank. It looked a lot like another popular invention of the day—the Victrola.

As many as fifteen doctors

labored over Sullau, working the pulmotor “in relays.” At several junctures, Sullau gained consciousness, each time giving hope that his life might be saved. Ultimately, though, his body could not shed itself of the cumulative effects of the gas. Sometime around dawn on Saturday, June 9, the man who started the North Butte disaster was added to the list of its victims.

As word of the fire spread through Butte in the predawn hours, panic-stricken families began to gather at the gates of the mines, held back by a company of troops from the Montana National Guard. One wife not among the worried bystanders was Lena Sullau. For three weeks, she had been in North Dakota, tending her ailing father.

“Saturday evening I received a wire from an undertaking establishment,” Lena told a reporter upon her return to Butte. “This was the first news I had of the accident.” She talked to the reporter about the effects of a recent tornado in eastern Montana, which she had witnessed on the train ride back to Butte. And she talked about the war in Europe. Ernest had an aged mother in Germany, but all of his other relatives had been killed in the fighting. “It seems all the world is wrong.”

Though several local newspapers lauded Sullau’s bravery in warning other men of the fire, another, more insidious story was also spread. “Because the foreman had a German name,” said Burton K. Wheeler, the federal district attorney in Butte, “it was widely believed [the fire] was an act of sabotage directed by the Kaiser.”

The Anaconda Standard offered a similar report: “The suspicion is very strong in the minds of hundreds of people in this community that those interested in stopping the production of copper and zinc in this community may have had something to do with these fires.”

In the days to come, the rumor would mix easily in a deadly brew of anti-German hysteria, broader ethnic conflict, and a crippling strike. For the time being, though, all eyes remained fixed on the plight of the men in the mines.

In the first two hours after the fire, North Butte officials held out hope that most miners would escape through adjoining properties. Urgent telephone calls went out to the other mines as the officials attempted to establish a head count of those who had escaped. Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M., the timekeeper gave an initial report: 204 souls were still missing. “Scores of men,” they suddenly knew, were “trapped in the lower workings.”

Upon hearing the report, L. D. Frink, superintendent of the North Butte mines, turned solemnly to the other men in the room. The fire, he told them, looked “nothing short of a calamity.”

Five (#ulink_90a855bc-8117-57aa-a438-ce083be5d90b)

“SWEETENED CORRUPTION” (#ulink_90a855bc-8117-57aa-a438-ce083be5d90b)

By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.


By the mid-1890s, Butte, Montana, had become the undisputed copper capital of the world, and copper had turned Butte’s two ruling “kings”—Marcus Daly and William Clark—into fabulously wealthy men.

For his part, Marcus Daly resided in his own town, christened with the same name—“Anaconda”—as his company. The town of Anaconda stood twenty-six miles from Butte and was built around a gigantic smelting operation constructed by Daly and his partners to process the raw riches ripped from their mines. Daly built and lived in the sumptuous Hotel Montana, which he kept fully staffed, though he and his family were often the only guests. Each morning, he ate a breakfast of beefsteak in a dining hall designed to accommodate 500, though he usually dined alone.

The floor of Daly’s hotel bar featured a wooden inlay of Tammany, his favorite racehorse, constructed by an imported New York artist from over a thousand pieces of hardwood. Anyone stepping on Tammany’s regal head was required to buy drinks for the house. As for Tammany himself, Daly kept him and the rest of his horses on a 22,000-acre horse farm in the lush Bitterroot Valley. (When Daly died, his horses sold at auction for more than $2 million.) For his commute between Anaconda and Butte, Daly rode a private rail car named Hattie, said to be the most luxurious in the country. Daly also owned the rails along which Hattie rolled, having built his own railroad after a dispute with Montana Union over rates.

William Clark was even richer—and more extravagant—than Marcus Daly. Clark’s tastes, reflecting one sharp contrast with Daly, ran to the pretentious. He built, for example, a garish Fifth Avenue mansion in New York at a cost of $7 million, reportedly the most expensive private residence of its day. The mansion included 121 rooms, 31 baths, and 4 galleries for the display of Clark’s beloved art collection, gathered during numerous trips to fin de siècle Europe. To ensure consistency of building materials throughout the house, Clark purchased entire stone quarries and his own bronze foundry. In addition to his Fifth Avenue residence, Clark maintained mansions in Butte and Los Angeles, with an oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara thrown in for good measure. Nor did Clark neglect his family’s housing needs. Son William Junior’s Butte home featured a $65,000 garage (with heated floors) for the protection and care of horses, carriages, and an extensive automobile collection.

Daly’s and Clark’s financial power converted easily into political power, and it was the realm of politics that provided the central battleground for the two men’s titanic clash. Speculation about the origin of the Clark-Daly feud has inspired a rash of theories ranging from personal slight to clashing business plans. Whatever the genesis of the enmity, the political ambition of William Clark and the election of 1888 provided the backdrop for the feud’s first dramatic, public eruption.

In 1888, Montana was still a territory, and an election was held to select its nonvoting delegate to the United States Congress. Clark ran as a Democrat on a platform calling for lower trade tariffs (the Republicans of the day called for higher ones) and “keep[ing] the Mongolian race from our shores.”

Daly, in addition to his personal disdain for Clark, had a pointed parochial interest at stake. His copper industry required gargantuan amounts of timber—both to buttress his mine shafts and to fuel his smelters. Part of Daly’s western empire included extensive timber holdings, but Anaconda also took logs another way—by poaching off federal lands. For years this practice had been overlooked, in part because of vague property lines, but the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland brought several enforcement suits—still pending in 1888. Daly hoped that Republican Benjamin Harrison would win the presidential election (which he did), and that a Republican delegate from Montana would have more sway than a Democrat (i.e., Clark) in getting the Department of Interior to quash the suits.

Daly quietly set about to engineer a Clark defeat, beginning by ensuring that his own miners and sawyers (whose shift bosses inspected the ballots before submission) voted against Clark. It worked. Clark lost fourteen of sixteen Montana counties, and the infamous “War of the Copper Kings” had begun.

For a dozen years, the Clark-Daly feud would foul the waters of Montana politics—culminating with perhaps the most corrupt election in American history and spilling dramatically onto the floor of the United States Senate.

By 1899, Montana had become a state—entitled to representation by two senators in Washington. Until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into force, senators were not elected directly by popular vote, but rather indirectly by state legislatures. This concentration of electors greatly facilitated corruption, conveniently congregating the handful of men who cast the deciding ballots.

The stage was set for copper king William A. Clark, who having conquered the world of business now ached for the title of senator. He made no bones about the means he would deploy to win. His son Charlie said, infamously, “We will send the old man to the Senate or the poorhouse.”
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