The nation’s worst hard-rock mining disaster serves as a focal point for examining the mixed legacy of Big Copper.
U.S. mining tragedies of recent years have a way to go to compare with the disaster that took 163 lives beginning on June 8, 1917, outside of Butte, Mont. Miners at what was called “the world’s richest hill” had been working for years at up to a half-mile below ground (plus equal or greater lateral distances from the nearest vertical shaft), extracting precious metal and copper ores; most were in the employ of the giant Anaconda Company, owned by the Rockefeller minions of Standard Oil, but the accidental fire was started in a North Butte Mining Co. (long defunct) shaft. A former Washington lawyer and a novelist (The Revenant, 2002), Punke pores through the records to detail aspects of heroics and tragedy; men died from burns, suffocation (including carbon monoxide), some were scalded to death and possibly even drowned as water was poured into the mine to quench the blazing timbers. Because Anaconda had lately sealed off a number of passages, bodies were found with fingers scraped to the bone, the victims’ “certain” escape cut off. The disaster is the author’s point of departure for an extended look at the impact of mining—primarily of copper—on Butte itself, the state of Montana and the nation. Ensuing labor unrest on the eve of World War I, for instance, was viciously suppressed by industry barons, with government in their pockets, leading to violence and hysteria. Economic depression followed as Butte’s ores were depleted, leaving the city with today’s giant toxic lake—the pathetic last vestige of pit-mining.
Enlightening saga of tough men, tough times, persistent corruption and greed.