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5. Life in the Mines


Working Life in Butte


"There were stories of silver and stories of gold
Wake up to a new day of riches untold
The rivers run deep and the trees they stand tall
To hell with my homeland it's here I'll rise or fall."
Andy McLarney

Prior to 1915, miners looking for work simple turned-up and were hired on the spot as needed. By the time Henry J. arrived a more formal system of recruitment was in place. The Company hired “Shift Bosses” who in turn were responsible for hiring the daily workers. Naturally an Irish shift boss would give preference to his friends and fellow countrymen. It’s possible that by 1915 some Mourne Men had established themselves as shift bosses thereby ensuring work for Henry J. and the later arrivals.
When Henry J arrived in Butte, there were over 14,500 miners working on rotating shifts around the clock compared to 2,000 miners in 1883. For example in 1890 the Anaconda is credited with producing $17,000,000 of copper. The wealth that flowed from the mines is difficult to perceive today.  However, all was not how it may have first appeared. Miners’ salaries had not increased at the same ferocious rate as their numbers. The demand for increased production, “to get the rock in the box” was met with unskilled immigrants like Henry J. and his friends who were assigned to the most dangerous tasks. Henry J. was probably earning between $3.50 and $4.00 a day for this work, the same wage that was paid in 1878. The price of copper, however, had risen dramatically from 8 cents a pound in 1878 to around 20 cents a pound by 1914.
Copper miners in Butte Montana - historical postcard. Miners of Mourne, Mourne Mountains, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, mining in Butte, Montana.

Postcard reproduction courtesy of Joy Fisher of the

MT Penny Post Card Archives


  Copper miners in Butte Montana - historical postcard. Miners of Mourne, Mourne Mountains, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, mining in Butte, Montana.

Conditions in the mines were atrocious. All men worked steadily, 12 hours a day, toward one goal - to take as much ore as possible from the mines 4,000 feet below the surface. It was the most dangerous job in America. In the dark airless tunnels, temperatures stayed above 90 degrees all year round. In winter after their long shift when miners, their bodies soaked in sweat, went above ground they were plunged into sub-zero temperatures. A moment’s inattention could lead to frostbite and the threatened loss of a finger or ear.

 There was the perpetual threat of silicosis, from breathing in dust which hadn’t any oxygen pumped into it. The polluted air tore at the miners’ lungs and led thousands to die prematurely from pneumonia and tuberculosis.

To add to the physical dangers of their work with a daily litany of injuries and weekly deaths there was in addition the constant risk of mine collapse, fire and electrocution. For example, in 1915 five miners were electrocuted alone and mortuary records reveal 65 accidental deaths in 1916.  If a man lived to be 40-years old, he was considered an old man in Butte.

 Against this backdrop it is not unsurprising that many miners felt antagonism towards the Company and to the bosses that lived in luxurious mansions in the town and in neighboring Helena, which at one time harbored more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation.

In that age of dynamic and rapid change, industrial relations relative to today appear to us to be little different to feudalism. Generally employers addressed the needs and welfare of the employees only in relation to efficiencies of production. There were of course philanthropists whose charitable foundations etc. still bear witness to their patronage. On a scale unimaginable today, the leaders of Industry whether they were mine owners or car producers could and did buy and sell coal mines and forests, build dams and towns, control railroads or whatever their projects demanded.

For the miners, their lives were brutalised by the harsh conditions of work, social conditions and climate. It is to their eternal credit that for the majority the tenet of their religion, moral code and innate goodness was channelled to striving for greater social improvement for all.  It is no accident that Montana elected in 1917 the first woman, pacifist Jeanette Rankin, to Congress. Even more remarkable in that it was to be another three years before women got the vote.


Up Contents 1. The Arrival 2. The Immigrant 3. Life in Butte 4. Bucket of Blood 5. Life in the Mines 6. 1916 7. Speculator Mine 8. WOBBLIES 9. St. Patrick's Day 10. The Wedding Sources Reader's Comments


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