Filed Under Labor History

Frank Little Tour: Granite Mountain Memorial

168 Men Died in 1917 Fire

The disaster exacerbated tensions between miners and the Anaconda Company.

Since the Butte Miners Union’s demise in 1914, tensions between miners and mine owners had only grown more severe. War exacerbated this, first by ramping up copper production, which yielded big profits for mine owners but only minimal benefits for mine workers. And second by threatening to draft workers into a war they believed they had no interest in.

In the midst of these tensions, an unprecedented tragedy hit Butte. On June 8, a fire broke out in the Granite Mountain Mine. A miner’s headlamp accidentally ignited oil cloth sheathing on a long cable in a shaft. Flames quickly shot up the mine shaft, igniting timber supports. The fire spread through the mine and into an adjoining mine, the Speculator.

The fire pumped smoke and toxic gases through the vast network of tunnels in Butte’s mines. Miners trying to escape had to navigate a maze of dark, smoke-filled tunnels. In addition, in flagrant violation of safety laws, the mine companies had walled off some of the tunnels. Later, dead men were found with their fingertips ground to the bone from clawing against the closed walls trying to escape.

Miners on the surface launched heroic rescue efforts. But it was impossible to reach many of the men locked thousands of feet in the depths of the mountain. Some rescuers died trying. In the end, 168 miners lost their lives. It was, and remains, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in U.S. history.

The mine disaster catalyzed a spontaneous strike in one Butte mine that eventually spread to all of the other mines. Other trades associated with the mines also struck. Butte’s miners organized a new union. They demanded safety reforms, better pay, and above all, an end to the “rustling card” system that allowed the Anaconda Company to ban workers who threatened its power. But Anaconda refused to end the system. So the strike went on, paralyzing the greatest copper mines on earth.

Given the strategic importance of copper to the war, Butte’s strike quickly gained national attention. Labor organizers, mine owners, consumers, and the federal government all recognized it as a strike of potentially immense consequences. The city, and the nation, were on edge.

Audio

Miner's Song Maurice Powers sings his version of the traditional mining disaster song “The Dream of the Miner’s Child.” Powers sings it in a discussion about the Granite/Speculator disaster. At the end of the song he says: “The sun came up, and they all burned up in there.” Source: Mary Murphy interviewer. Butte Oral History Project, Special Collections and Archives, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana. Date: April 17, 1980
Rescue Efforts Clarence Miller, who was working in the Butte mines in 1917, describes the efforts he and other miners made to try to save miners during the Granite Mountain/Speculator mine disaster. Source: Ray Calkins interviewer. Butte Silver Bow Archives. Date: June 13, 1980

Images

Fire at the Speculator Mine This photo shows the Speculator Mine with smoke pouring out of it. In 1917, a fire began in the Granite Mountain Mine and then quickly spread to the nearby Speculator Mine. Before many of the men could escape, they were killed. 168 died. It was the worst hard-rock mining accident in U.S. history. It ignited spontaneous strikes that soon shut down the whole city. Source: Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives Creator: Unknown Date: 1917

Location

Alexander Street | Public

Metadata

Leif Fredrickson, “Frank Little Tour: Granite Mountain Memorial,” Story of Butte, accessed January 27, 2023, https://storyofbutte.org/items/show/3414.