Mining the past

  • LIFEBLOOD OF BUTTE, MONT.: "Lexington Headframe," mixed media by Susan Barnes

  • COMPANY TOWN: "Houses off Montana Street," mixed media by Susan Barnes

  • Colorado Mine in Butte, Mont., circa 1890 - Butt

    ilverbow Archives
  • Original Mine miners and friends, circa 1905

    K. Ross Toole Archives/Univ. of Mont.
  • John "Banger" Harris started work in mines in 1930 at age 16

    Derek Pruitt photo
  • John T. Shea was an ironworker in the Steward Mine

    Derek Pruitt photo

Note: an introductory, front-page sidebar, "The hidden West," accompanies this feature story.

BUTTE, Mont. - George Bigcraft, John Bjornstorm, Daniel Budovinac. Near midnight on June 8, 1917, an electric cable caught fire at the 2,400 level of the shaft that served the Granite Mountain and Speculator mines here. Toyvo Kokkonen, Ben Konecney, Mike Kubilus. All of the underground operations in the district had been running at capacity day and night to provide copper and other metals for the American military effort in Europe. Albino Massa, Theodore Mostoski, Patrick Murphy.

Within minutes, the shaft was transformed into a blazing underground chimney 240 stories high, producing smoke and toxic gas that drove hundreds of miners, along with their crazed mules and horses, into adjoining tunnels. Wilfred St. Jacques, Melchior Sheldrup, Irving Smith. When, several days later, the last of the dead were brought to the surface, the recovered bodies numbered 168. Nick Xelros, Mike Yukonovich, Steve Zizich. The Granite Mountain-Speculator fire still stands as the worst hard-rock mining disaster in United States history.

But that year tragedy did not begin on June 8, nor did it end then. Another 61 miners also died. Angelo Zucaloy and Frederick Rowe at the Original Mine the month before. Najib Solomon at the Steward Mine the following October. Of the war period, it has been said that the men of Butte fought on two fronts, and in both arenas the price was the same. But even during peacetime, metals mining was the country's most dangerous industrial occupation. In the decades prior to the Granite Mountain-Speculator fire, for example, the fatality rate among miners exceeded that of railroaders by a third and was more than double that of loggers.

Following the war, the numbers also were high in Butte, with an average of one death each week through the 1920s. Thereafter, fewer and fewer fatal accidents occurred, reflecting improved safety measures and, more significant, a gradual decline in the number of mines. But the work remained hazardous. Thirty-five miners perished in 1948, and 22 in 1952. All told, at least 2,200 men died underground in Butte. As for those whose lives were shortened or diminished by injury, illness and silicosis, records are sadly incomplete, but by all credible accounts the total easily runs to the tens of thousands.

Ironically, the event that did more than anything else to reduce the dangers of mining was the shift to open-pit technology, which began in 1955. A total of six men died in the Berkeley Pit at Butte during its 28 years of operation. And at the East Continental Pit, which began in 1980 and is still running today, only one fatality has occurred. Especially since the mid-1970s, when the last of the underground mines closed down, the cost of mining copper has been measured not in terms of human suffering but instead environmental degradation - ravaged landscapes rather than broken bodies and crushed spirits.

And the most prominent item on that new bill is the Berkeley Pit. A mile wide, Butte's first pit has been filling with highly acidic, metal-laden groundwater since the pumps were turned off in 1983. The resulting lake, now some 950 feet deep, is the largest body of toxic water in the country, which is why it has been designated a Superfund site; more accurately, the uppermost portion of the most extensive Superfund complex in the country.

Living, as I do, in proximity to both large-scale metals mining and its aftermath offers a unique opportunity to take the measure of extractive industry. Indeed, the presence of the Berkeley Pit, East Pit, and several square miles of intervening waste rock on the east end of Butte, plus more than a dozen mine yards and towering headframes actually within the city limits, leaves one no choice. Here there is no mistaking cause, no escaping consequence. And in consideration of that fact I have lately found myself wondering about the men who carried out the work, especially the underground miners. Despite all that has been written about Butte, their story remains largely untold. Given the attention local environmental issues receive today, it could easily stay that way.

Fortunately, the ore body that lies immediately below the old business district and original neighborhoods - an area known locally as the Hill - was extensive and rich enough to sustain an underground run of unprecedented duration, starting with Marcus Daly's fateful copper strike in 1882, and lasting until the closure of the Steward and Mountain Con mines in 1975. I say fortunate because, as a result, several hundred former miners are alive today, men who spent most of their working existence within the nocturnal recesses of the Hill. They are the last surviving members of an occupational tribe that soon will be extinct.

Their way of life, their subculture, is vanishing, as part of the transition to the so-called New West.

Before their voices fall silent, consigning to oblivion all that they have seen and done, we might do well to pull up a chair and listen to their testimony, if for no other reason than to disabuse ourselves of the naive notion - a stubbornly Western notion, it should be admitted - that the future necessarily will be better than the past.

Who controls history?

The Anaconda Copper Mining Co., which owned all of the mining and smelting operations in the Butte district, also owned the major daily newspaper, as well as all but one of the other large dailies in Montana, and it did so, incredibly, until 1959. This enabled the company to promote its views in the guise of providing news, and one of its unwritten policies was to play down the hazards of the industry. So the newspaper's editors often buried or withheld information about mining accidents and they rarely published stories about respiratory illness or other health problems attributable to mining.

How, then, do we now know that 2,200 men died in the shafts and tunnels beneath Butte? Because a local historian named James Harrington took it upon himself to dispel the fog surrounding an unpleasant truth. He studied the major daily and the many smaller newspapers published over the years, as well as death certificates, the Coroner's Register, and other corroborating documents.

Certainly, people here know that underground mining is dangerous. Most families of three or more generations have been visited by a mine-related tragedy of one kind or another. All the same, the actual scope of the suffering - the big picture - comes as a surprise, especially when the deaths are presented as a roster of individual names, the individuality underscored by the readily apparent ethnic diversity among the names. By calling attention to the human toll of large-scale industrialized mining, Harrington has awakened the community to a historical reality it always inhabited but of which it was only dimly aware.

The same is true of the Granite Mountain Memorial, which was constructed only four years ago, and only because of the persistence of a Vista volunteer named Gerry Walter. After 80 years of forgetfulness, Butte finally commemorated the men who died in the fire of 1917.

These are modest exercises in expanded self-awareness, to be sure, but they illustrate the role of memory in the creation and evolution of everyday culture. History is usable and, like it or not, it is being used day and night, for an array of reasons, not all of them admirable or compatible.

No better example exists than the two main meta-narratives currently employed to describe Butte in the popular media.

According to the first, espoused by journalists and conservationists, the town is an environmental disaster story.

According to the second, promoted largely by the Atlantic Richfield Co., which bought the Anaconda properties in the late 1970s and thus inherited the cleanup bill, it is a reclamation success story, a story that ARCO tells again and again by means of full-page ads in local publications and catchy television spots. Whatever merits each narrative may possess, however, we can be sure that they do not convey the whole story, whether considered singly or together. How could they? They exclude too many relevant voices - indeed, the same voices the company ignored in its newspaper coverage of death and injury in the mines - the voices of surviving widows, their children, neighbors, parish priests, physicians, the miners themselves.

An effort to finally tell a larger truth is the Storyteller Project, founded two years ago by Butte natives Father Steve Judd and John Driscoll. In the conviction that reclamation is as much a cultural imperative as an environmental obligation, the Storyteller Project has launched a number of programs, including a grassroots oral history campaign.

The eventual headquarters of the Storyteller Project is the Steward Mine, which is centrally located and thus affords a view of both pits, tailings, several underground mine yards, surviving neighborhoods such as Corktown and Centerville, the barren stretches where Finntown, Dublin Gulch and other neighborhoods once stood, the old business district, with its large concentration of masonry structures, including the Hennessey Building, which was home to the executive offices of the company, and two of the railroad beds used to transport ore to the nearby town of Anaconda for smelting. It is a singular historical vista - the story of hard-rock mining in America cast in terms of urban, industrial and environmental artifacts, architecture and landscapes.

Miners know their turf

Since its adoption by the Storyteller Project, the Steward Mine has come alive in unexpected ways. Its 10-story-high steel headframe, for example, once a beacon of occupational promise, now serves as a lightning rod for remembrance. Last summer, while Driscoll and others were repairing the roof of the main engine room, several oldtimers who had worked on the Hill stopped to ask him what he was doing. Before long, they were regaling Driscoll with tale after tale about their experiences at that very mine. Although the Steward ceased operating more than 20 years ago, the men still feel an intense attachment to the site.

"You could cook the devil down there," said John "Banger" Harris, a 87-year-old miner of Cornish descent. He was referring to a hot, airless section of the Steward Mine called the Twilight Zone.

Harris, who worked in the mines for 40 years, speaks of each underground operation as if it were a distinct geographical region, "country," to use his term, as in Steward Country, Original Country and Lexington Country. Of course, the mines are distinct - to anyone who studies them closely, which miners were obliged by circumstance to do. They had no choice but to learn the differences between various kinds of rock, where pockets of deadly gas likely would be found, the locations of fractures; their lives and livelihoods depended on such intimate familiarity.

Environmental historian Richard White makes a parallel point in his brief but forceful 1995 study, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Advocating a viewpoint that embraces both indigenous salmon fishermen and 20th-century dam builders, White observes that "human beings have historically known nature through work." One could not survive without getting one's hands dirty - altering what is given in accordance with what is desired - and in the process one acquired a practical education in the ways of the natural world.

White argues that modern environmentalism has failed to appreciate this fact. Too often critiques of contemporary economic pursuits convey an oddly estranged view of the human condition. By contrast, the worldviews of those who practice the oldest occupations - hunters, fishermen, farmers - imply a deep and lasting embeddedness in the physical environment. Banger Harris, for his part, and despite the many troublesome legacies of mining, is more closely connected to the natural history of the Hill than any environmentalist I know.

To hear Harris and his fellow miners tell it, Butte is an epic of labor in which the main characters are builders, doers, men of practical inclination and often considerable physical skill, who make things and take things apart with their hands. When ironworker John T. Shea describes climbing to the top of a headframe to repair a giant pulley or free a tangled cable, the action taken and the specifics of the site are of a piece, along with a third essential element - the character of the man.

Work, place and identity are fused. Small wonder that these individuals seem so vivid, so grounded, so sure of themselves, even years after they have retired. Although they would never speak in such terms, they are secure in their cosmologies; their position in the grand scheme of things defines them, strengthens them. They know where they stand.

Conservationists sometimes misunderstand or ignore this dimension of work. So do economic developers. In the stories each side tells about the future of the West, people often are reduced to caricatures, with those who promote the economy speaking as if we are nothing but consumers, and those who champion the environment speaking as if we could exist solely as spectators.

Between eating nature and contemplating it lies the far more difficult but fruitful issue of what else we might do with our time on earth, and that usually involves labor of one kind or another. Speaking more generally, the association of identity, skilled work and specific places provides clues to the potential role of occupation in the creation of sustainable communities. For in the absence of honorable, well-paying, long-lasting jobs, loyalty to place is mostly precluded, and without loyalty to place, local knowledge of and abiding regard for local environments cannot develop. Bereft of such knowledge and regard, Western society will, to borrow Wallace Stegner's memorable terms, remain out of tune with Western scenery.

The value of work

If work has been the primary way we make a home in the world, then the biggest problem the New West faces is homelessness. Of what is our attachment to this region constituted? Allowing, for the sake of argument, that the rancher, logger and miner are here for the wrong reasons, or for reasons that can no longer be justified, or justified in terms of traditional techniques and scales of operation, what are the right reasons? The availability of memorable photographic subjects? Flyfishing? Skiing? Do we really believe that we can resolve conflicts between development and conservation by creating communities whose relationship with the natural world is roughly equivalent to that of a tourist or recreationist?

It is as if we have left one world behind, a world we know we will never see again, even if we wished to, but have not yet found a suitable replacement. We are wandering in a historical desert, aliens on the range.

I don't see an easy or quick way out of this self-induced wilderness. A fourth-generation descendant of Irish copper miners and Cornish tin miners, I make my living from publishing and film, abstract enterprises whose loci are elsewhere. With the exception of happily taking trout from nearby rivers, and scavenging a fossil now and then, I don't get my hands dirty.

One foot in, one foot out. Which is to say, I have pitched my life astride the biggest fault line of the New West. Largely because of the precariousness of my position, however, and that of many of my neighbors, I believe we cannot afford to forget the surviving representatives of the Old West and their traditional ways of life - the work they do, the values they hold. As Linda Loman says of her salesman husband Willy, "attention must be paid."

Late last summer, a group of us were paying attention to Banger Harris when he pulled from his pocket a pin the company gave him. He had labored underground 40 years without sustaining serious injury. The unusual nature of that accomplishment was underscored by our location. We were standing in the Underground Miners Memorial, a tunnel that once connected the Steward Mine yard to an adjacent railroad line, and where the names of everyone known to have died underground will soon be etched on unadorned wooden plaques, some 2,200 of them.

There, close enough to the mouth to be able to see but only a few feet away from the cool, consuming darkness that is the tunnel's native state, Harris turned the pin toward the light. About the size of a dime and worth little more, it is obscenely disproportionate to the experience it is supposed to commemorate.

Harris also noted the discrepancy, and with a corrosive wit that amplified it all the more. "They thought they were doing me a favor," he said.

The experience was a reminder that those who worked in extractive industry, those who had the most to lose and the least to gain from their labors, were just as expendable as the resources they removed.

Should it actually exist, the promised land where society and scenery rhyme will elude us as long as we are guided by an ethic of expendability, whether applied to people or places. Before we travel too much farther into the desert, we might consider inviting Harris and his kind to join us. For our sake as well as theirs. After all, they made the journey first.

A contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, Edwin Dobb is under contract with Houghton Mifflin to write a book on Butte. He is also the head writer on a documentary film about the town, now being developed by Rattlesnake Productions.


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