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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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Heinze filed his most notorious apex claim in the spring of 1899, just as Butte was awakening to the threat posed by Standard Oil’s purchase of Anaconda. Amid the convoluted patchwork quilt of mining claims on Butte Hill, Fritz and his lawyers somehow found two tiny parcels of unclaimed land. Added together, the two parcels equaled less than one one-hundredth of an acre—“the equivalent of a small room.” At this minuscule point of land, claimed Heinze, lay the apex of the great Anaconda vein. Revealing his penchant for hilarious irony, Heinze named his new mine the “Copper Trust.” It was, sputtered the Anaconda Standard, “an astounding piece of audacity.” So audacious that Butte’s courts, in a rarity, actually failed to support Heinze to the hilt.

Most of Heinze’s claims, however, found a sympathetic hearing. This did not occur by accident. Whether or not Heinze actually bribed judges is not clear, but it is certain that he worked tirelessly to ensure the election of his allies to key Montana courts. Perhaps his greatest asset was a colorful Butte judge named William Clancy. Clancy had a cartoonish appearance dominated by a tangled, flowing gray beard. According to one story, a man once approached Clancy and said, “Judge, I’ll bet you a dollar that I can tell you what you had for breakfast this morning.”

“You’re on,” said Clancy.

“Ham and eggs,” said the man triumphantly, lifting Clancy’s beard to point out the physical evidence.

“You lose,” said Clancy. “That was yesterday’s breakfast.”

Clancy was just as notorious for his outlandish courthouse behavior. He was often manifestly disinterested in legal proceedings, a fact he sometimes demonstrated by sleeping. When awake, he could be caustic and withering toward courtroom participants—especially those affiliated with Amalgamated. Once, irritated with a particularly loquacious witness, Clancy erupted: “It seems to me this witness is troubled with constipation of thought and diarrhea of words.”

Whatever anyone else might think of Judge Clancy, for Fritz Heinze he was a sure bet. It was a truism with which Standard Oil/Amalgamated would soon become painfully familiar.

Fritz Heinze’s first major engagement against Standard Oil came in the context of the election of 1900. Heinze’s goal in this election flowed directly from his signature method of extraction. As a “courtroom miner,” Heinze depended upon friendly courts; he set about to ensure that his allies occupied key benches.

Like any savvy political strategist, Fritz recognized that there is no asset like a good enemy. In this regard, at least, the Standard Oil purchase of Anaconda was like a dream come true. Nationally, “progressivism” was taking off as a powerful political movement—a reaction, in part, to the rise of abusive monopolies. Montanans, on the heels of a decade in which populist sentiment had run strong, resented and even feared the idea of control by the most notorious of eastern trusts.

Whether Heinze was a true believer or a clever opportunist is subject to debate, but in either event, he had found a potent rallying cry: “My fight against Standard Oil is your fight,” Fritz told audiences across the state. “In this glorious battle to save the State from the minions of the Rockefellers and the piracy of Standard Oil you and I are partners.”

In his enmity to Standard Oil, Heinze found a powerful ally—or perhaps more accurately, a marriage of convenience. Copper King William A. Clark, a man incapable of shame, strode unabashedly back onto the stage. For Clark, noisy opposition to Standard Oil/Amalgamated would provide a satisfying slap at his bitter rival Marcus Daly. But Clark sought an even greater revenge: a new path to the prize he had long coveted and long been denied—a seat in the United States Senate. While Fritz Heinze saw the election of 1900 as a way to win friendly courts, William Clark envisioned a way to win a friendly state legislature—one that would elect him (legitimately, this time) to the U.S. Senate.

Between Heinze’s political savvy and Clark’s bottomless supply of cash, the two formed a potent team. Together they turned the election into a dramatic political circus. In a way it looked thoroughly modern—hired talent pumped into the state in a seamless melding of politics and entertainment: political cartoonists, famous actresses, fireworks, free champagne, and even vaudeville performers, slamming Standard Oil to a catchy ragtime beat.

Standard Oil, hardly a naif, did not take the Heinze-Clark challenge sitting down. It began its own free-spending campaign, including a $1.5 million war chest to buy Montana newspapers.

Though the newspapers would be important later, they were not enough to swing the election of 1900. In the end, Heinze elected and/or reelected a slate of friendly judges, and a new Montana legislature—barely a year beyond the bribery scandal of 1899—sent William A. Clark back to the United States Senate.

Within weeks, though, the ground beneath Fritz Heinze began to shift. Standard Oil employed a tactic that would serve it (and its successors) to great effect: Divide and conquer. Senator William A. Clark provided an easy target, devoid of scruples and vulnerable to his own recent past. Standard Oil threatened to dedicate its boundless resources to a revived U.S. Senate challenge of Clark’s credentials—unless Clark broke with Heinze and dropped his opposition to Amalgamated. For Clark, it was an easy call. He shed himself of Fritz Heinze with the ease that most people change a shirt. Heinze now stood alone against the preeminent economic power of his day.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1900 election, another development seemed to sharpen the battle lines. On November 12, Marcus Daly died. His death, wrote historian Michael Malone, seemed “to symbolize the passing of the great captains of frontier industry and to herald the emergence of the giant and impersonal new supercorporations.”

From 1900 to 1906, the second War of the Copper Kings raged through Butte and ultimately through all of Montana. It was a war with dozens of battles, but two in particular are worth noting. One brought Heinze and Amalgamated into literal warfare—on a battlefield hundreds of feet below ground. The other represented, in essence, a Standard Oil coup d’état of the once-sovereign state Montana.

The armed conflict broke out as a by-product of one of Fritz Heinze’s infamous apex claims. Just before the turn of the century, Heinze had filed a series of claims based on his ownership of a mine called the Rarus—which bordered Amalgamated property rich in copper. Pending resolution of the case, both Heinze’s Montana Ore Purchasing Company and Amalgamated were enjoined from mining in the contested zone.

In 1903—with the case still pending and the injunction still in place—Heinze executed one of his most outrageous legal maneuvers. He simply transferred ownership of the Rarus mine from his Montana Ore Purchasing Company to one of his other corporations, the Johns-town Mining Company. Then, with the disingenuous reasoning that the Johnstown was not subject to the court’s injunction, he secretly began to mine the contested ground.

Over a period of many weeks, Heinze flooded miners into the Amalgamated holdings, pulling out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of copper. Amalgamated finally caught wind of the scheme when its miners, working in a nearby property, began to hear blasting—clearly coming from the “forbidden zone.” Their suspicions finally raised, Amalgamated sent spies on an underground mission to determine the scale of the pirating. They were shocked at the wholesale plunder.

Back on the surface, Amalgamated asked a federal judge to mandate an inspection of the property. But before the inspection took place, Heinze covered his tracks by dynamiting the cavities and filling them with waste rock. More injunctions were issued, which Heinze now blatantly ignored, continuing his extractions from the forbidden ground.

Below ground, meanwhile, the struggle degenerated into open warfare. Fistfights broke out when groups of Heinze miners encountered their counterparts from Amalgamated. These quickly escalated, and soon miners were fighting one another with more dangerous weapons. Dueling miners burned “stink-producing material”—including rubbish, old shoes, and rubber—to fill the enemy’s workings with smoke. They blew a powdered form of lime through air hoses to pollute the tunnels with caustic dust. They diverted water to cause flooding and used dynamite to cave in tunnels and block access points. The miners even tossed homemade hand grenades—short pieces of dynamite crimped inside tomato cans.

Remarkably, amid weeks of running skirmishes, only two men were killed.

Poised on the brink of large-scale loss of life, both sides seemed to catch themselves and called a truce. After stealing more than $500,000 worth of copper, Heinze would ultimately pay a fine of $24,000—less than 5 percent of his haul.

While dramatic, the Rarus apex case was just the tip of Heinze’s gigantic litigation iceberg. Some lawsuits Heinze won outright. With others he secured injunctions, idling Amalgamated properties while endless proceedings plodded through the courts. Amalgamated was spending millions in legal fees, and even more significant, Heinze’s suits had tied up Amalgamated holdings valued at $70 to $100 million.

Building on his success in the election of 1900 and his devastating legal attacks, Heinze also mounted a relentless public relations barrage. He continued to cast himself as the local David against a heartless, foreign Goliath, and the people of Butte rallied to his side. F. Augustus Heinze was in many ways like a Butte version of Robert E. Lee—a beloved field general reeling off a remarkable string of battlefield successes against a much larger foe. Like Lee, however, Heinze faced an opponent with patience, resolve, and vastly superior resources. And for Heinze, his Gettysburg was about to unfold.

Apex litigation may have been Fritz Heinze’s trademark, but it was far from the only weapon in his legal arsenal. Heinze was also giving Standard Oil/Amalgamated fits through the technique of minority shareholder suits. In a minority shareholder suit, Heinze allies purchased a few shares of companies being absorbed into Amalgamated. Then they devised claims as to how Amalgamated was violating their minority shareholder rights and brought suit—preferably in a court presided over by a close Heinze ally.

In the most far-reaching claim, Heinze’s minority shareholder allies argued that the absorption of component companies into Amalgamated had been undertaken without their consent—and therefore should be quashed. As a holding company, Amalgamated was nothing without the companies it had absorbed. If Fritz and his allies won, Amalgamated would effectively be dissolved. Heinze, of course, had chosen his forum carefully. The suits were filed in the court of an old friend—the gray-bearded Judge Clancy.

On October 22, 1903, Judge Clancy ruled in favor of Heinze, prohibiting Amalgamated from absorbing component companies (without the permission of all shareholders) and also prohibiting the Company from paying dividends derived from the profits of the acquired companies.

If Clancy’s ruling stood, Amalgamated was dead—along with Standard Oil’s broader play to build a copper trust.

With the corporate stakes now life or death, Standard Oil came roaring back. Montana wants Amalgamated shut down? Show Montana what that means. Within hours of Clancy’s decision, Standard ordered a total shutdown of all Amalgamated operations in the state. Amalgamated mines in Butte were immediately closed. The great smelter fires were extinguished in the towns of Anaconda and Great Falls. Across Montana’s forests, lumber camps were emptied. So too were sawmills, coal mines, railroads, retail stores, and dozens of other related industries. Overnight, three-fourths of Montana’s wage earners found themselves abruptly thrown out of work.

Having shown Montanans the price of defiance, Standard Oil issued its demand to Heinze: Sell the offending minority shares and drop the suits. Heinze, playing for time, promised to answer the next day from the courthouse steps.

What followed was one of the great pieces of political theater. When Fritz Heinze arrived at the appointed hour to give his response, an audience of ten thousand people stood waiting outside the courthouse. It was an angry crowd. Fritz, he knew, had tapped too deeply from his reservoir of goodwill. His injudicious use of lawsuits had triggered a terrible backlash, and now thousands of workers—including the teeming mob that stood before him—faced a frigid Montana winter with no jobs.

Heinze began to speak, his deep voice booming so that his words could be heard up and down the street. He deplored the control that Amalgamated had gained over the affairs of the state. The emerging trust, he argued, was the “greatest menace that any community could possibly have within its boundaries.” He reminded them that Amalgamated was really Standard Oil, and that Standard Oil had “trampled every law, human and divine.”

Most of all, though, he cast his fight as their fight.

If they crush me today, they will crush you tomorrow. They will cut your wages and raise the tariff in the company stores on every bite you eat and every rag you wear. They will force you to dwell in Standard Oil houses while you live, and they will bury you in Standard Oil coffins when you die.

It was brilliant demagoguery, all the more effective because—at some level—it was true. So great was Heinze’s oratory that, for a few days at least, he managed to turn the tide back in his favor.

Soon, though, Standard Oil issued a new demand—so audacious that it made the old William Clark bribery scandal look like child’s play. This time the great trust ignored Heinze and went straight to the governor of Montana, Joseph K. Toole. In exchange for reopening Amalgamated’s operations, Standard demanded that the governor convene a special session of the Montana State Legislature. Once convened, the legislature was directed to pass a new law that would allow offensive judges to be disqualified in civil suits. They called it the Clancy Law.

Governor Toole, to his credit, initially resisted, rightfully horrified at the precedent of acceding to such raw corporate blackmail. Ultimately, though, with winter looming and most of his state out of work, the political pressure was too great. On December 1,1903, the Montana legislature convened in special session. By December 10, Standard Oil had its new law. Fritz Heinze had lost his most potent weapon—the courts. Heinze would mount a few skirmishes in the ensuing months, but the end was now written.

In 1906, F. Augustus Heinze sold his Butte holdings to Amalgamated for $12 million. In 1910, William A. Clark followed suit, selling most of his property in Montana. Through Amalgamated—in 1915 the name reverted back to the old “Anaconda”—Standard Oil had consolidated virtually all the holdings of the three former Copper Kings. The new corporation was a leviathan of remarkable scale and power. “Regardless of its shifting corporate entity,” said one Montanan who watched the changes, “it was always referred to … as ‘the Company, ’ a simple yet awe-inspiring term.”

Marcus Daly, of course, died before seeing the evolution of the company he built. Heinze moved to New York City, where he lived in a double suite at the Waldorf, married a beautiful actress, squandered most of his fortune in a banking venture, then died at age forty-five from cirrhosis of the liver. William Clark, after a single term in the U.S. Senate, would also spend most of his time in Manhattan (when not in Europe), collecting art and residing in his 121-room Fifth Avenue mansion.

Back in Butte, meanwhile, the miners and their families would live with the consequences.

One of the men who would soon feel the consequences of Standard Oil’s Butte takeover was Burton “B.K.” Wheeler. By the time of the North Butte disaster, Wheeler held the powerful position of federal district attorney for Montana. He had arrived in Butte, though, as a freshly minted graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, in the waning days of Fritz Heinze’s epic battle with Standard.

B.K. Wheeler, destined to be one of the most important men of his generation, settled in Butte as the result of a losing poker hand. Wheeler was born in Hampton, Massachusetts, in 1882, the son of a cobbler. He worked his way through the University of Michigan Law School, clerking in the dean’s office during the school year and selling cookbooks door-to-door in the summer. Upon Wheeler’s graduation, the dean offered to help place him in “one of the big New York law firms.”

B.K. Wheeler declined. “[R]eturning East seemed stultifying,” wrote Wheeler in his autobiography. “I was anxious to go anywhere that was wide open with opportunity … ever since I was a child I had dreamed of going West.” With his life savings of $500, Wheeler set out to find a job, hopping from town to town for three months before arriving in Butte in the fall of 1905—just as Standard Oil was fixing its grip on the city.

Wheeler spent a week interviewing with “every successful lawyer in the city.” The results of his effort: “exactly one offer.” And not one he found attractive. Wheeler packed the bag containing his worldly possessions and headed for the train station. “I decided to try Spokane.”

On his way to the station, two well-dressed men, presenting themselves as fellow travelers, invited the young man to share a drink. Wheeler accepted the invitation, and as they sat down at a bar the men proposed “a friendly game of cards.” The young lawyer suggested “pitch.”

“Oh no,” said one of his companions, “let’s play poker.”

In a matter of minutes, Wheeler was betting the remnants of his life savings on a pair of jacks. When one of his new friends turned up three treys, the game was over. “I sat there dumbfounded,” said Wheeler. He learned later, of course, that the game had been rigged, but the result would stand. The train for Spokane came and went, and Wheeler accepted the job he had rejected the day before.

Eight (#ulink_b9c00e8c-43ad-5511-a2b9-46f1d0e53a71)

“THEN WE MET DUGGAN” (#ulink_b9c00e8c-43ad-5511-a2b9-46f1d0e53a71)

Then we met Duggan, a nipper, who knows every foot of the ground.

—JOSIAH JAMES, QUOTED IN THE ANACONDA STANDARD, JUNE 11, 1917

Miner John Wirta was at work on the 2,600 level of the Speculator in the early morning hours of June 9 when “an Austrian” ran through his crosscut, yelling in broken English, “Come on! Come on! Pretty danger!” At first Wirta and his crewmates thought the man was crazy. “But we feared there might have been a cave-in or fall of ground above, so we went up to the twenty-fourth level.” At the 2,400, according to Wirta, “We smelled smoke and gas for the first time and heard that there was a big fire in the shaft.”

Though their situation was obviously serious, Wirta and the others with him could take one bit of comfort. The 2,400 level of the Speculator connected directly to the High Ore mine. One of the men knew the passage and “thought we could get out that way.” They took off through the connecting drift.

The miners had progressed only a few hundred feet when they encountered a concrete wall with a rusted iron door, sealing the drift closed. They tried the handle, but the rust froze it solid. Precious minutes ticked away as they pounded at the handle, the smoke and gas pursuing them through the drift. There must have been collective elation when finally the door gave way, swinging back on its corroded hinges toward the Speculator.

But as the men turned their lanterns to illuminate the opening, they did not find a passageway to safety. Directly behind the door stood another concrete wall, blocking their path from top to bottom and from side to side. Desperately they searched for tools—something to batter down the wall. Finding nothing but train tracks, the miners pulled up the rails and began to pound. The wall, though, was too thick: four inches of concrete framed by a one-inch timber brattice.

The experience of Wirta and his companions was not unique. In numerous North Butte connections to adjoining Anaconda properties, miners fleeing the fire encountered bulkheads—solid walls obstructing their escape. Many of the bulkheads had apparently been built after the May 1917 fire in the Anaconda-owned Modoc mine. Ironically, the intent of the walls had been to keep the Modoc smoke and fumes out of the Speculator.

In this regard, the structures were perfectly proper. What was improper—indeed what was illegal under Montana State law—was for walls to be built without doors.

Some dead miners were found “piled up against bulkheads of solid cement,” remembered B.K. Wheeler, the federal district attorney, “although state law required that all bulkheads in the mines must have an iron door which can be opened.”
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