History: Intro

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In early 1917, Butte was a unionized industrial city with a population of 91,000 people. Home to one of the largest mining operations in the world, the abundance of employment opportunities drew workers from every corner of the globe. "No Smoking" signs posted in the mines were printed in 16 different languages. More than 30 languages were spoken among the city streets.

In April, four months into the United States' involvement in World War I came a heightened demand for copper. Butte mines met this increased demand by operating around the clock, working the 14,500 miners like mules in steadily deteriorating safety conditions. Beds in the boarding houses often never went cold, because many of the miners were sleeping in shifts as well. Despite these demanding work conditions, Butte miners worked with a pride and determination seldom found above ground, let alone a half-mile below the surface of the earth.

On the evening of June 8, 1917, 410 men were lowered into the Granite Mountain shaft to begin another backbreaking night shift. Earlier in the day, a crew had begun the process of lowering a three-ton electric cable down the shaft to complete work on a sprinkler system designed to protect against fire. At 8:00 PM the cable slipped from its clamps, and fell into a tangled coil below the 2400-foot level. As it fell, the lead covering was torn away, exposing a large portion of oiled paraffin paper, which was used to insulate the cable.

At 11:30 that night four men went down to examine the cable. One of the men accidentally touched his handheld carbide lamp to the cable insulation, which immediately ignited the oily paper. The flame then spread to the shaft timbers, quickly filling the Granite Mountain and Speculator shafts with thick, toxic smoke.

In the confusion that ensued, just over half of the men working the depths of the Granite Mountain shaft were able to find an escape to the surface. One group of 29 men built a bulkhead to isolate themselves from the smoke and gas for 38 hours before making their way to safety. At the 2254-foot level, another group of 8 men were found behind a makeshift bulkhead over 50 hours from the start of the fire. Two of these men died shortly before their rescue, but the other six were recovered safely.

Though the intensity of the fire cannot be disputed, only two men were actually burned to death in a rescue attempt at the onset of the blaze. The rest were simply trapped and overcome by the noxious, suffocating fumes. By the close of the rescue operation on June 16, 1917, eight days after the fire had begun, the death toll had reached its final tally of 168 men.

While the Granite Mountain / Speculator Mine Fire was the worst disaster in metal mining history, the rescue mission was a remarkable accomplishment. Rescue crews succeeded in searching over 30 miles of drifts and crosscuts, and at least 15 miles of stopes, raises, and manways. Townspeople turned out in droves to help in whatever way possible. This was done in just over 7 days, in an environment saturated with carbon monoxide and dense, tar-laden smoke. 155 bodies were recovered and removed, all without the loss of a single rescue worker.

Despite the tremendous damage the fire caused to the Granite Mountain Mine, removal of ore continued until the mine's close in 1923. The Butte mines produced the copper that helped electrify America and win World War I. Even in the face of tragedy, Butte was being called "The Richest Hill on Earth," referencing the soul and determination of the community, rather than the value of the ore beneath its feet.