Granite Mountain Memorial
Perched on an overlook above the historic mining town of Butte, Montana, are the commemorative bricks and engraved plaques of the Granite Mountain Memorial. It pays tribute to the survivors of hard rock mining’s greatest disaster: the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire of June 8, 1917. The 168 men lost in the fire along with 2,500 Butte men lost from mining related causes between 1879 and 1983 are commemorated at this grand and educational outlook.
Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire
The Speculator-Granite Mountain Mine is Butte’s second largest copper producer. In the course of the mine’s operation, between 1887 and 1944, “the Spec” reaches 3,700 feet deep. The mine boasted the best ventilation system in the district yet along with fresh are, it circulated gas and smoke through the mine on a night in 1917.
Copper demand during WWI spures Butte’s copper mines to operate at full capacity, day and night. At the Speculator-Granite Mountain Mine, 410 men work the night shift on June 8, 1917. Shortly before midnight, an electric cable escapes the workmen lowering it. The cable lands below the 2400 level. Four men descent to inspect the cable.
While “the Spec” boasts the first electric hoist installed on “the Hill” in 1914,* not everything in the mine has been electrified. Carbide lamps are still in common use. So, when the four man team inspects the oily, frayed cables an assistant foreman accidentally ignites the cable.
By 11:45 PM, the fire starts and men flee the smoke-filling the 2400 level. Many miners are able to escape through the adjoining High Ore, Diamond, and Badger mines. By midnight, “the shaft is like a roaring furnace.” Those who have not escaped are trapped in place. The signaling system is burned out, preventing the 4-deck cages from being lowered to retrieve survivors.
Rescue attempts don’t begin until 1 AM, the next morning. Fortunately, living survivors are retrieved from the mine for the next two days. Even so, the prognosis was grim. According to one survivor, “the soot was up to our knees, Several bodies are under the soot. They are all cooked.”
One-hundred-sixty-eight men loose their lives in the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire. It is hard rock mining’s greatest disaster. Yet, in such tragedies, there are also heroes.
In the midst of the chaos and fear of the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire, Manus Duggan leads a team of 29 men to the 2400 level. The team builds a bulkhead against the gas. They will hold up at that location for 38-hours before a rescue crew can save the surviving 25 men at 11:AM on Sunday, June 10. While Duggan does not survive the event, his time trapped in the mine is documented in notes found on his body:
By the time all the men were rounded together Friday night we were all caught in a trap. I suggested we must build a bulkhead. The gas was everywhere. We built a bulkhead and then a second for safety. We could hear the rock falling and supposed it to be the rock in the 2400 skip chute.Manus Duggan
J.D. Moore is a shift boss working the night of the fire. He is trapped underground on the 2200 level with his crew of 8 men for 50 hours. Under his direction, the crew creates two bulkheads to wait for rescue. While Moore died shortly before rescue on Monday, June 11 at 9:AM, six of his men survive thanks to his leadership.
Well, we are all waiting for the end…I guess it won’t be long…We take turns rapping on the pipe, so if the rescue crew is around they will hear us…There is a young fellow here, Clarence Marthey. He has a wife and two kiddies. Tell her we done the best we could, but the cards were against us.J. D. Moore
Visiting the Granite Mountain Memorial
A century later, the Granite Mountain Memorial stands in tribute to the men lost in the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire as well as other Butte men lost in the course of mining Butte’s copper deposits. An interactive panel plays audio clips about the fire and community. Plaques list the the names of men lost in the Granite Mountain-Speculator Fire as well as commemorate the experiences and heroism of those involved.
*The same year that John T. Ryan Sr. and George H. Deike founded the Mine Safety Appliances Company (MSA) and collaborated with Thomas Edison to create the Edison Cap Lamp: the first electric miner’s lamp with a rechargeable battery pack.
The first patent for an electric cap lamp was granted on Oct. 29, 1889. But it was Edison’s model with a rechargeable battery pack, patented in 1928 that set the industry standard.