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7. Speculator Mine


Disasters, Strikes and Spies


"Deep in the mines I fare, Only a candle's glow, Shows with a fitful flare,
What is the path I go.
Drilling the holes I blast, Getting the copper ore, Tapping the riches vast,
Nature has kept in store."
Berton Braley

Almost two year after Henry J. had been in America and two months after the United States joined World War I, one of the deadliest disasters in mining history occurred. With the war industries clamoring for copper, every mine in Butte was working at full capacity. Demand for copper was at its peak as every rifle cartridge contained an ounce of pure copper. Among the mines aiding the war effort was the big Speculator, with close to 2,000 miners employed on two shifts. On that fateful June night, a group of men descended in the Spectator Mine to inspect an electrical cable that had fallen loose. When the assistant foreman accidentally touched his carbide lamp to the frayed paraffin paper that wrapped the cable, it caught fire. The fire and deadly smoke quickly fanned through the stopes and shafts of the well-ventilated mine to connecting mines. Over four hundred men were trapped underground as flame and smoke filled the shafts. Within an hour, an estimated 163 perished by suffocation or burning and miraculously 247 men escaped, 25 due to the heroic act of Manus Duggan who gave his life for his fellow workers.  The North Butte Mining Company estimated damage to the mine at a million dollars.


Memorial to Manus Duggan a miner who risked his life to try and rescue his colleagues during the big Speculator Mine disaster. Miners of Mourne, Mourne Mountains, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, mining in Butte, Montana. Memorial to Manus Duggan a miner who risked his life to try and rescue his colleagues during the big Speculator Mine disaster.
The facts surrounding the fire and the possibility that it may have been started deliberately, even an accurate account of the casualties continues to be debated.  One undisputable fact was the shock felt by Butte and the world. With almost 38 countries now represented in Butte, it is perhaps not surprising that ethnic fighting erupted as men tried to grapple with their anger and grief. The Irish, who had previously ruled supreme, were infuriated by the arrival of the Finns, Slavs and Turks who were prepared to work for lower wages. Suspicion was directly towards the Finns that they had been in some way responsible for the fire at the Spectacular mine.
Following the disaster a new union arose, literally, a phoenix from the ashes. Disgruntled miners, metal workers and smelter workers formed a Metal Mine Workers’ Union to lobby the Company for improved working conditions, better wages and abolition of the ‘rustling card’ and “blacklisting” – the firing of workers for union membership. To its cost, the Company totally ignored the efforts of these desperate men. While funerals for the miners were still taking place, almost 20,000 men walked out of the copper mines of Montana.
The war effort brought work to Butte, but with it other fearsome consequences. Stories of German spies were common, and there was much talk about a possible attack from German aircraft. There were all kinds of sightings of the airborne Hun, and the newspapers ran stories that the hills of Montana were crawling with the Kaiser’s legions. The immigrant miners were caught up in this hysteria, much of it based on ethnicity, the Irish came under particular scrutiny, on account of alleged pro-German sympathies. Fueled by the general strike and the spreading frenzy of world war, a palpable atmosphere of anarchy swept over Butte.



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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