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Fire and Brimstone: The Butte Mining Disaster of 1917

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s, Sherilyn’s Gal Friday

It’s not that I was snooping around on her desk or anything, but that gal is always leaving notes and bits of research she’s doing on her latest book just laying about.

Well, this one just about broke my heart. Of all the ways we can imagine meeting our doom, few of them strike as much terror into the heart as the horror of being buried alive. That prospect haunted the hard rock miners of Butte, Montana, every time they climbed into the small cages, called “skips,” that plunged them down, nearly at freefall, to daily drudgery in the dark bowels of the Butte Hill. But surely the reality of being trapped underground in a race against death must exceed all our powers of imagination.

The Powder Keg of Butte, Montana:

Before the disaster struck, Butte, Montana, was a volatile powder keg of social and political tensions. The year was 1917, and the town was marked by antiwar protests, an oppressive corporate master, simmering labor unrest, divisive ethnic conflicts, and radicalism from both the left and the right. It was a place where a spark was all that was needed to ignite the explosive mix of discontent. Tragically, that spark would come in the form of a devastating mine fire, setting off a chain of events that would rock the nation.

The Fateful Night of June 8, 1917:

The worst hard-rock mining catastrophe in American history unfolded just before midnight on June 8, 1917. It all began with a tragic accident more than two thousand feet below ground in the Granite Mountain shaft at the Spectator Mine.

The accident sparked a fire that quickly unleashed flames, smoke, and poisonous gas throughout the intricate network of underground tunnels. In just one hour, over four hundred brave men found themselves trapped in a life-and-death struggle. Within three days, one hundred and sixty-three of them would lose their lives.


Families in Agony:

While the miners fought desperately to survive beneath the earth’s surface, their families faced unimaginable agony above ground. The disaster left wives, children, and loved ones anxiously awaiting news of their husbands, fathers, and friends. The Butte Mining Disaster not only claimed the lives of miners but also left a scar on the hearts of the entire community.

And the tragedy of Butte wrapped its fingers around Sherilyn’s heart and tugged hard.

The Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 was not only a pivotal moment in the history of Butte, Montana, it inspired the backstory of one of Sherilyn’s fictional characters, Sheriff Sam Brown who is featured in several of her novels, including Whiskey Wars and “Stamp Mill Murder.”

Sherilyn used the raw emotion of the disaster to forge Sam’s unwavering integrity, passionate commitment to his community, and a deep distrust of politicians and corporate interests. The disaster also revealed his depth of compassion and empathy, qualities that nearly consumed him during the subsequent Butte riots and strike that followed the fire.

If you’re interested in learning more, Sherilyn recommends Michael Punke’s excellent book Fire and Brimstone. Or for a quicker read, has a gripping summary of the tragedy.

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