Granite Mountain Memorial Overlook

This open air plaza affords a view of the Continental Divide, the entire Summit Valley, and signs of more than 100 years of hard rock mining. Interpretive plaques and memorial bricks commemorate the June 8th, 1917 fire here that took 168 lives, the nation's worst hard rock mining disaster.
 
For a description of that event, see the story below.
 
The Granite Mountain Disaster and Memorial Overlook
 
In 1917, years of labor unrest and martial law had turned Butte, Montana into a powder keg waiting for a match. The beginning of World War I brought intense activity in Butte's underground mines to satisfy the warring world's insatiable appetite for copper. Mine shafts and stopes honeycombed what was known as "The Richest Hill on Earth" as more and more miners tunneled to extract copper and other precious metals from thousands of feet below the surface.

 In 1883, 2,000 miners worked in Butte's underground mines. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners working in Butte mines on rotating shifts around the clock.
        
On the night of June 8th, 1917, a group of men descended to the 2400 level of the Granite Mountain mine to inspect an electrical cable that had fallen loose while being
strung by a crew on an earlier shift. When the cable fell, the workers from the earlier shift decided to leave it until the next day. The protective sheathing frayed as it fell against
rocks and timbers. When Ernest Sullau, the assistant foreman, inspected the cable, he accidentally touched his hand-held carbide lamp to uncovered paraffin paper wrapping, and the cable caught fire.
Sullau literally lit the fuse that would ignite the powder keg.

The tragedy was compounded because the Granite Mountain was a well ventilated mine, allowing the flames and smoke to spread quickly. The fire and deadly smoke fanned through the stopes and shafts to connecting mines including the Speculator, killing 168 men.

The fire was the deadliest disaster in metal mining history and shocked the world.
Not even Butte, which had already known its share of mining mishaps, was ready for the magnitude of the disaster. For a sense of the impact of the disaster, consider that it occurred in a city of less than 100,000 residents, yet this disaster killed as many innocent victims as the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

What was then a metropolitan city was thrown into shock but the community quickly rallied to support survivors.

Gerry Walter spent two years researching the circumstances surrounding the fire and its impact on Butte. She has been the driving force behind ensuring the completion of a memorial overlook that was formally dedicated in a ceremony on June 8, 1996.

"A lot of people don't realize that in 1917 Butte was an industrial complex that rivaled the steel mills of Pittsburgh. It was a very metropolitan city then," said Walter. "The North Butte Mining Company which owned the mine had to hire extra workers to answer telegrams that came in from around the world inquiring about loved ones who may have been working in the mine."

Walter added that the whole town shut down in mourning as families buried their dead. The giant amusement park east of town, Columbia Gardens, closed out of respect. Ball games were canceled. Walter described one newspaper ad that she came across in her research. The city's largest department store, Hennessy's, invited all widows of the disaster to come in if they needed clothes to wear for funerals.     
      
"It took two weeks to get all of the bodies out of the mine," Walter said. "Many were so disfigured by that time that they couldn't be identified and were buried in a common grave."
After the fire, shock turned to anger as rumors about the cause and circumstances of the fire spread faster than the flames underground. Sullau was German, although he had lived and worked in Butte for many years, and a rumor spread that the fire had been a deliberate act of war-time sabotage. Another rumor spread that many of the men died because the North Butte Mining Company had earlier cemented possible escape routes to prevent "high-grading" or sneaking ore out of the mine.
 
Ironically, according to Walter, bulkheads had been cemented, but the reason was to prevent smoke and fumes from a smoldering fire in the nearby Modoc mine from infiltrating the Granite Mountain and Speculator shafts. Still, the rumors persisted and three days after the fire a general strike was called by miners across the Hill who made better working conditions, worker safety the cornerstone of their demands, along with more equitable compensation for their labor as copper prices, and company profits, soared.

These demands were answered by the murder of Frank Little, an I.W.W. organizer who was abducted from his boarding house room on August 1, 1917, by five men who dragged him behind a car to a train bridge at the southwest edge of town where they hung his body with a note pinned to his shirt that warned his union brothers to beware.

The labor unrest, however, continued until a massacre on the Anaconda Road in April 25, 1920 when Company detectives opened fire on unarmed strikers, wounding 16 and killing two, prompting the I.W.W. to declare in dismay, "Butte is a law unto itself."
 
Today the Memorial Overlook dedicated in 1996 serves to remind visitors of the sacrifices and contributions of Butte's earliest residents. "This memorial overlook will serve to recall the Granite Mountain fire, but it will also serve as a memorial to all of the underground miners who worked on the Hill over the years," said Gerry Walter. Walter credits Allan Hooper, long-time Butte mining historian, for saving mining records and photos from the day.

"Al really preserved the few things we have from the North Butte Mining Company," said Walter. "Before that, it had been a forgotten story. When I first began researching the fire, I was amazed that there wasn't something to recall it," she said. "Then, what really got to me was reading that the City Council had met in 1917 after the fire to create a memorial and for whatever reason it never happened."

Construction was paid for in large part by a $50,000 grant from the EPA, which along with the Atlantic Richfield Corporation, is responsible for reclaiming the land as part of the Superfund work going on in Butte.

Brick grids have been laid for 1,200 memorial brick pavers and the bricks are being "sold" to donors who want to have their words inscribed on the pavement of the plaza. Each brick is inscribed by a donor who has contributed to the memorial.

In between the bricks are concrete spacers and blocks of core samples from the mines. The cement pillars are adorned with engraved plaques that interpret and commemorate the loss of life and the heroic efforts of victims to escape the fire and smoke and of their fellow workers who struggled against time to save as many lives as they did.

The plaques retell stories of heroism of the men who struggled to survive the fire.
There were many stories of men like Manus Duggan who led 29 others to an area where they could safely wait for rescue crews. Duggan himself died when he went to bring help was overcome by smoke.

Others were luckier than Duggan. Brothers Clarence and Elmer Miller both walked out of the mine although they were working in separate areas. Clarence Miller left the mines to start a shoe store, Miller's Boots and Shoes, that is still operated by his family in Butte today.

For details about how to "buy" a brick for the memorial or how to visit the Granite Mountain Memorial Overlook, write to the Granite Mountain Memorial, 305 W. Mercury St., Butte, MT 59701, or call 1-800-735-6814.

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