This day 103 years ago – 8 June 1917 – an explosion in a copper mine in Butte, Montana, resulted in the death of 168 miners. 38 of them were from Ireland, by far the largest group of foreign-born workers.
The fire in the Speculator Granite Mountain Mine shocked America and is still the worst mining disaster in US history, the copper-mines were at full production because of wartime needs.
Tracy Thornton from the Montana Standard newspaper has compiled a story on two Mayo men Michael Conroy and Peter Sheridan for their bravery in attempting to rescue the men. She estimates that at least 38 of the 168 who died were from Ireland. Among them was another Mayo man, Peter Hastings from Drummin, Westport. Other Irish surnames among those who perished included Brady, McGuinness, Moran, Murphy, Murray, O’Neill, Lowry, Lavery, Kelly, Kennedy, Keane, Joyce, Geraghty, Fitzsimmons, Fagan, Durkan, Doherty, Dillon, Curran, Fitzharris and Callaghan.
The following narrative is an account of the incident at the time. “On the evening of June 8, 1917, 410 men were lowered into the Granite Mountain shaft to begin another backbreaking night shift. Earlier in the day, a crew had begun the process of lowering a three-ton electric cable down the shaft to complete work on a sprinkler system designed to protect against fire. “At 8pm the cable slipped from its clamps, and fell into a tangled coil below the 2400 foot level. As it fell, the lead covering was torn away, exposing a large portion of oiled paraffin paper, which was used to insulate the cable.
“At 11.30pm that night four men went down to examine the cable. One of the men accidentally touched his handheld carbide lamp to the cable insulation, which immediately ignited the oily paper. The flame then spread to the shaft timbers, quickly filling the Granite Mountain and Speculator shafts with thick, toxic smoke.
“In the confusion that ensued, just over half of the men working the depths of the Granite Mountain shaft were able to find an escape to the surface. One group of 29 men built a bulkhead to isolate themselves from the smoke and gas for 38 hours before making their way to safety.
“At the 2254 foot level, another group of eight men were found behind a makeshift bulkhead over 50 hours after the start of the fire. Two of these men died shortly before their rescue, but the other six were recovered safely.”
The working conditions were appalling and while the town mourned the loss of its men, the Miners demanded safer conditions, but the mine owners refused. Butte became a violent place, with union halls blown up and miners jailed or even murdered. When a strike at one mine was sustained for seven months, the miners were accused of treason during wartime and marched into the mines at gunpoint when federal troops were called in. In the Anaconda Road Massacre of 1920, Pinkerton Agency guards
Butte had the highest proportion of Irish-born residents of any U.S. city.