A mine disaster and its ripple effects

Laura M. Mac Donald is the author of "Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917."

IN June 1917 in Butte, Mont., thousands of feet underground, two cables on a mine elevator became entangled. Michael Punke spins this seemingly trivial occurrence into “Fire and Brimstone,” an absorbing story encompassing an industrial accident that killed 164 men, a massive strike that turned violent and years later the ugly political fight waged by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reorganize and further politicize the Supreme Court.

Using the lively history of Butte’s three rival copper kings -- William A. Clark, Marcus Daly and Frederick Heinze -- as a giddy background, Punke starts this story in the late 1800s, the free-to-be-free, soon-to-be-rich bubble years of the West. Bored by life in the East, these men accumulated wealth and power by means of copper mining, corrupt judges, lawsuits, bribery and political influence. They transformed Butte from a small prospecting site into a rollicking company town complete with 14 theaters, 12 libraries and 1,000 prostitutes.

For the most part, Clark, Daly and Heinze had stable relationships with their miners -- thanks in part to the fact that Butte’s other specialty was unions. After the miners first unionized in the 1870s, pretty much all of the trades -- including the town’s two resident chimney sweeps -- formed unions, earning Butte the title of “the Gibraltar of unionism.”


As Punke tells it, as long as the mines were privately owned, the unions retained power because the owners needed their members’ votes for various political campaigns. It was not until 1906 that, after a series of business amalgamations that culminated in Standard Oil buying the majority of the mines, the unions started to lose their power. Corporations cared less about worker votes in their effort to control politicians. They now needed the influence of Montana newspapers, which Standard Oil strategically bought. Working conditions deteriorated significantly, as did worker unions, and by the time of the 1917 mining disaster, when a veteran miner set off a fire by brushing his lamp against the oily insulation of tangled elevator cables, tensions in Butte were described as “a volcano on the point of eruption.”

The fire in the mine spread quickly, burning up the available oxygen and sending a rush of carbon monoxide deeper into the mine, where more than 400 men were working. As word of the fire spread, miners navigated through the tunnels like mice in a maze. Some escaped, while others desperately sought an alternate exit, all the while conscious of a silent, odorless killer following close behind them. Punke focuses on two heroes, men who knew the layout well enough to lead others to safety. In a bit of quick thinking, they didn’t try to climb out of the mines but headed toward the bulkheads separating individual mines.

By law, Punke explains, these bulkheads were supposed to have doors leading to neighboring mines and fresh air. The crews encountered doorless, solid walls that could not be breached, but instead of panicking they ingeniously barricaded themselves against the bulkheads using loose timber and whatever detritus they found.

To ensure that the gas could not penetrate the barrier, the men stuffed the makeshift wall with their clothes, then sat in the dark (for the most part naked) to conserve what little clean oxygen remained. These efforts to conserve oxygen, Punke explains, saved many lives. Above ground, mine officials gathered rescuers who, in clumsy suits similar to early diving suits, descended into the mines as anxious families looked on. Those who were rescued brought back grim stories of miners naked in the dark, scribbling farewell notes and wills.

It is difficult to read these passages and not think of the Sago mine disaster in January in West Virginia and not wonder why in the near century since, safety for miners has still not improved significantly in the U.S.

Over three days, 164 bodies were brought to the surface; the miners reacted with a walkout. Electricians, who had been scheduled to strike before the accident, joined the strikers, leaving only 10% of workers on the job. By the end of June, 15,000 of the 16,500 mine workers in Butte were on strike and management was forced to shut down the mine. The size and ferocity of the strike garnered the attention of national newspapers, competing unions and the federal government, which needed copper to produce bullets for the war effort.

Punke, clearly at ease writing about politics, Washington and the law, uses the strike and the disaster’s aftermath to reveal the circular nature of corruption in company towns.

At times his discursive narrative style wanders too far from the mines: In the book’s last third, for example, he documents the government’s restriction of rights during wartime, showing how fear and racism were used to limit the powers of laborers, the press and the public in general (which, of course, protected corporations like Standard Oil). These pages feel like padding until Punke turns to Burton K. Wheeler, Montana’s pro-labor attorney general, and follows his campaign to be reelected. Ironically, Wheeler’s enemies at Standard Oil successfully fought to ruin his career as attorney general, and later he had an overwhelming victory in a Senate race, which led to his being such a confidante of Roosevelt that he earned the nickname “teacher’s pet.”

Wheeler’s special status did not last; he fought Roosevelt’s attempt to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court. In the bizarre world of politics, this defiance did not lead to Wheeler’s banishment but to speculation that he would be Roosevelt’s running mate, an offer he declined. His continual fight to protect the working man earned Wheeler the status of a folk hero (a position later immortalized in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and in Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America”). But, as Punke points out, Wheeler was no naif: “Wheeler arrived in Washington as the thick-skinned survivor of bare-knuckle politics in an utterly cut-throat era.”

By using the mining accident as the central story, Punke is able to wander down these various avenues, casually linking them until he has built a coherent narrative. At times, the side roads can get a little twisted and scattered, but Punke gathers them in the Wheeler chapter, showing how what is often dismissed as local politics can have lasting effects on a nation. Given the material -- an accident, corporate negligence, media concentration, corruption, an overseas war, paranoia and a zealous attorney general -- “Fire and Brimstone” feels weirdly familiar.