Montana Mining Tragedy Remembered 100 Years Later

Nine blows of the original Granite Mountain whistle sounded Thursday night to break a moment of silence for the lives lost in the 1917 fire at the Granite Mountain and Speculator mines.

Nine whistles meant that an uncontrollable fire was burning in the mine.

Some in the crowd at the memorial site wore T-shirts commemorating the anniversary of the Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire of June 8, 1917, which remains the worst disaster in hard-rock mining history 100 years later.

Hard-rock miners Larry Hoffman and Matt Krattiger wore helmets with carbide lamps, their open flames jumping and flickering in the breeze. A hand-held carbide lamp started the 1917 fire when a miner accidentally touched the flame to exposed paraffin paper deep in a well-ventilated shaft.

The evening of remembrance began with a pledge of allegiance led by the VFW Color Guard, after which Gerry Walter, who led the campaign to build the memorial in the 1990s, opened with a prayer.

“We count among our blessings our U.S. citizenship, our Montana roots, our sheltering mountains, our expansive living space — and most of all, our shared love for and pride in Butte, America,” she read.

Humor suffused the memorial along with solemnity, sermons on courage and occasional tears. Referring to the hike some attendees had to make from their parked cars, memorial board member Sara Sparks joked, “Just remember that a hundred years ago, everyone walked, and it was snowing.”

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer presented Walters with a resolution of gratitude for her work on the memorial engraved on a plaque, which attendees affirmed with a standing ovation.

Accepting the award, Walters declared, “I now claim that I’m from Butte!”

Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney spoke in recognition of the enduring power of Butte’s labor history, especially the “years of tumultuous disaster” following the fire, which were fueled by bottomless wartime demand and workers’ growing insistence on safety and fair working conditions.

Staffers from the offices of Jon Tester and Steve Daines read proclamations that the senators gave on the floor of the Senate Thursday. Daines’ words honored the miners’ sacrifice and the courage they showed. Tester’s speech celebrated the legacy of the labor movement in Montana and in the country, including laws that remain in effect today.

Meghan Farren, a great-great-granddaughter of fire victim Manus Duggan, found the event surprisingly moving. “I didn’t expect it to be so touching — it’s been 100 years,” she said. But growing up in the shadow of the disaster left its mark on her family. Her grandmother, named Manus after her father, was born four weeks after his death.

Parish Priest Fr. Patrick Beretta pointed out that the ancient Greeks believed Pluto to be the god of death, wealth and mining — and that on the night of June 8, 1917, “death, wealth and mining were neighbors caught in an inferno.”

But, Beretta said, “we don’t heal from grief by forgetting; we heal from grief by remembering.” Through song, prayer and stories, the gathered community recalled the grief of the disaster and the city’s resilience.

In the distance, Our Lady of the Rockies stood sentinel as the crowd recited the Lord’s Prayer, holding hands with loved ones.

The evening ended with the VFW performing a 21-gun salute and Pete Godtland, a Butte resident and a World War II veteran, playing taps. Attendees opened boxes containing butterflies, which Walter called a symbol of rebirth. The butterflies emerged tentatively at first, and then all in a rush. The promised rain held off. By the time the crowd dispersed, the setting sun was breaking through the clouds, stray butterflies flapping around the flagpoles.