This week, Butte observes the centennial of a somber event: The Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster, the worst hard-rock mining tragedy in history.
Coming as it did at the peak of Butte’s population — conservatively put at 91,000 in 1917 — the tragedy says much about the city we love.
It reflects the incredible diversity that opportunity brought to Butte. The miners who died were a representative sample of a labor force divided by origin but united in purpose, and in the sharing of work and risk and reward, side by side thousands of feet below ground.
It reflects the bravery and determination that are at the core of Butte, then and now.
It reflects the strengths of family, faith and fraternity which have never been greater anywhere on this earth.
It reminds us that as brave as the miners were, Butte’s women were equally so, making families and futures for themselves, their mates and their children under the most challenging of conditions.
The city’s identity and determination never faltered after the disaster, and neither did Butte’s famous big heart, as the entire place rallied to the aid of the stricken families and friends of the victims.
Remembering the disaster is a way to honor the relatives of those brave men who lost their lives. It is also a way of seeing all that we have to be grateful for today.
In 1917, miners knew they faced an uncertain fate every time the cage took them into the earth.
Today, we have a superbly run mine in Butte with an outstanding safety record — and safety is absolutely paramount in Montana Resources’ culture.
Today, our public health and our life expectancy are much advanced from those of a century ago.
But we can still draw lessons from Granite Mountain and from Butte itself in 1917 that should be taken to heart today.
Then, Butte was the crucible of the labor movement. Now, organized labor has lost far too much of its clout — and companies who offshore jobs, exploit child labor and run sweatshops still prosper, a century later.
Then, the pollution of Silver Bow Creek and the poison in the air from smelters were facts of life. A hundred years later, we are still struggling with those consequences, and we are not moving fast enough in that struggle.
Then, the influence of money in politics was a hugely corrupting force. Indeed, Butte’s own William A. Clark used his fortune to buy himself a seat in the U.S. Senate. Montana lashed back — hard — against the influence of money in politics. But as the recent special election showed, it plagues us still.
The lessons of history are there for us. This week, as we delve into that history to honor Butte’s valorous mining heritage, we will do well to heed them.