Bridget Shea served as president and walking delegate of the Women’s Protective Union for 25 years. She was both feared and revered. Shea died in 1955 at the age of 79. (photo – Verdigris Project)
Born in County Cork in 1876, Bridget Murphy left Ireland at the turn of the century and immigrated to Butte. She met and married fellow Irishman James Shea, a member of the Teamsters’ union who drove a horse-drawn wagon for the Butte Brewing Company.
The brick workman’s cottage where Shea lived for 37 years sits on West Quartz Street high above the Summit Valley floor, its original varnished woodwork and French hardwood floors still gracing the interior. Not surprisingly, the Sheas bought a home in an area where they were surrounded by fellow Irishmen.
Shea’s domesticity as a wife and mother came to an abrupt end when her husband was sentenced to 18 months in the penitentiary after a deadly bar fight. The spread of contagious diseases in prison was rampant. The death of James Shea during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 left Shea a widow with four small children and a mortgage.
Like so many other Butte women at that time, Shea was forced to join the ranks of waitresses to support her family. No doubt part of her appeal that led to her successful leadership in the union was that she knew firsthand the hardships of widowed mothers.
The Shea home sits on Nanny Goat Hill in the Butte business district. Only in Butte could a miners’ cottage be built within 2 blocks of a 34-room residence of Romanesque Revival Victorian architecture. The mansion’s owner, William Clark, was one of the wealthiest men in the world, thanks to Butte’s copper mines.
From her home, Shea set out each working day, dressed in widow’s black, to visit employers in every direction, almost always walking. You can imagine her stopping at the WPU office three blocks away.
It is hard to overstate Shea’s accomplishments in Butte as an Irish immigrant and a woman. When she died in 1955, the Rev. James Shea, one of her three sons, celebrated her requiem mass at St. Patrick's church, five blocks from the house. Her name was subsequently chosen for the Butte chapter of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The National Historic Register plaque in front of Shea’s home says the home’s “carefully tended garden of shrub roses, lilacs, and lavender are a fragrant and lasting legacy.”