Butte: Montana’s Irish Mining Town

A group of miners in Butte

By Kara Rota, Contributor
August / September 2010

Many of the 1.8 million Irish who emigrated to Canada and the U.S. between 1845 and 1855 found employment in the dangerous but lucrative mines that played a vital role in building American industry. A new documentary, Butte, America, shows how over the following decades, the American Industrial Revolution swallowed entire families who lived in mining  communities, as the often deadly work caught immigrants between the power of the wealthy companies and the pull of unions.

Narrated by Gabriel Byrne, Butte, America is a documentary that tells the story of the most profitable hard rock mining town in American history. Through historical narrative and interviews with mine survivors and their families, the film captures the pioneering spirit that drew men to work in the mines, the emotional ties that formed in mining communities, and the powerful hold that the mining companies had over every aspect of their lives.

“I never said goodbye in the morning, going to work. I’d say see ya, so long. Never goodbye,” says John T. Shea, an Irish ironworker, in the opening moments of Butte, America. This cheerful spirit belies the underlying knowledge all the miners must have had that their work could mean an early death for them. Butte’s mines were statistically the most dangerous in the world, and required immense manpower to operate. In the early 1870s, Butte was a mining town on the verge of becoming a city full of immigrants in search of employment and the American Dream. When the advent of electricity demanded more copper,  the “Copper Kings,” industrialists Clark, Daly and Heinze, called for more manpower, pushing Butte’s population near 90,000. Immigrants flowed in from Ireland, England, Lebanon, Canada, Finland Austria, Italy, China, Montenegro, Mexico, and more: the “no smoking” signs in mines were written in sixteen languages.

The Irish, however, felt a special connection to Butte. Beginning their immigration during Famine times, many came from the Beara Peninsula where they had mined before leaving for America. They arrived in Butte by way of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, Penn-sylvania’s coalfields, and Michigan’s copper mines. They arrived from Cork, Mayo, and Donegal. According to David Emmons’s book The Butte Irish, 12,000 of Irish descent were living in Butte by 1900, where the population was then 47,635. At a quarter of the population, Irish made up a higher percentage in Butte than they did in any other American city at the turn of the last century. Seventy-seven various families of Sullivans left Castletownbere, Cork and came to Butte. By 1908 Butte hosted 1,200 Sullivans.

The land in Butte was owned by the mining companies, and mining families paid ground rent to live there. As the companies fought for control of the fruitful mines, the larger companies expanded into railroads, logging and other industries, pushing their smaller competitors out of business. Monopolies meant that corporations held greater and greater power over the families that lived in mining towns, and unions could do little to change the occupation’s hazards. Butte was awash with widows raising large families alone, left with no insurance or income. The women held several jobs, and children contributed to the workforce as soon as they were able, ushering in the age of newsboys. Some 16,000 miners worked in the connected honeycomb of mines that lay underneath Butte, all with beautiful names that belied what went on underground: Anselma, Alice, Lexington, Bell Diamond, Mountain View, Moonlight, Silverbowl, and on and on.

In 1899, Copper King Marcus Daly joined with William Rockefeller, Henry Rogers and Thomas Lawson to form the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, which soon changed its name to Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Marcus Daly was born in 1841 and raised near Ballyjamesduff in Co. Cavan. In Butte, he found a rich and plentiful source of precious metals, and became one of the wealthiest men in the West when demand for copper rose. He was known for his tendency to hire Irish whenever possible.

Known simply as “The Company,” by 1914 Anaconda Company had become the fourth largest corporation in the country and had full control of Butte. They controlled town and state legislatures, and miners were pushed to increase production. Under the stress, the miners’ union splintered into smaller factions, none of which were acknowledged by Anaconda. After 1905, Butte was a hub of organization for the “Wobblies,” or Industrial Workers of the World. As WWI hit, more and more copper was needed, and Irish miners were expected to work longer hours.

The conditions became, unthinkably, even more dangerous, culminating in a fire that exploded in the Granite Mountain Mine on June 8, 1917. Hundreds of miners were trapped inside; 168 bodies were found. The shocked town mourned. Miners demanded safer working conditions, but the mine owners refused. Butte became a violent place, with union halls blown up and miners jailed or even murdered. When a strike at one mine was sustained for seven months, the miners were accused of treason during wartime and marched into the mines at gunpoint when federal troops were called in. In the Anaconda Road Massacre of 1920, Pinkerton Agency guards hired by The Company shot a group of picketing strikers, killing one and injuring 16.

By 1920, industrial unionism was a thing of the past as the “Roaring 20s” ushered in an era of rampant capitalism.

Then 1929 hit America with the biggest bust it had ever seen. A new era for workers arrived in 1932 when FDR ran on his promise of a New Deal and support for labor unions. Newly confident union workers were legally empowered to strike, and  many did so in a pattern of every three years: the length of a contract. This led to a striking cycle in which mining families were forced to do without, but mining communities supported them with a created economy of credit, gift and barter. This community support during strike times, which many considered the highest moral achievement, also helped the miners achieve a living wage.

Still, The Company’s hold on Butte was ever-present, as it became more and more entwined in the daily lives of the families who lived there. Company-sponsored picnics, parade floats, and children’s sports teams were common, and miners’ kids grew up playing in the toxic playgrounds near active mines. However, by the 1940s, Anaconda’s profit was largely supplemented by overseas mining in Chile, which gave The Company a significant advantage in negotiating mining contracts with unions.

After a lifetime in the mines, if they survived the day-to-day perils of the machinery and conditions, many miners experienced a buildup of silica dust in their lungs and died painful deaths. After WWII, the prominence of industrial manufacture meant that greater and greater quantities of metal were needed. In the 1950s, Anaconda shifted their operations towards open pit mining, which utilized equipment and machines over manpower and caused greater environmental degradation. Miners were consistently laid off, and those that remained were turned into drivers and machine operators, stripping the work of the pride that men had had in it for generations. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make room for pit mines, and the remaining families were surrounded with gaping holes in the town they called home. When a fire swept across Butte, many believed it was set by The Company to destroy buildings in the way of more open pits. “They owned it, that’s all that mattered,” remembered one Butte citizen. “You can do anything you want when you own it.”

In 1977, Anaconda was purchased by the ARCO company, which started shutting down mines due to lower metal prices. Layoffs continued to wrack Butte economically and emotionally, as men who had given their lives to the mines were rewarded by being cast aside. In 1982, the pit mines began to close and unemployment was rampant. By 1984 the Berkeley Pit was the greatest poisonous lake in North America: thirty-three billion gallons of water laced with a toxic sludge of minerals and chemicals killed snow geese that migrated overhead and came into contact with the water. The environmental, emotional and economic devastation that characterized the rise and fall of Butte, Montana under the hand of the mining business remains evident today.

However, the spirit of community support that characterized Butte through the mining era remains. Since 1882, Butte’s annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities have provided an annual celebration of the city’s Irish heritage. Over 30,000 attend the parade held by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Butte’s historic Uptown District. The annual An Ri Ra, held on the second weekend in August, is a cultural festival that focuses on the music, dance and language of Ireland. Thousands attend the event. Once called “The Richest Hill on Earth” for its natural resources, which along with hardworking immigrant labor was plundered for profit, Butte is carving out a new identity as a city with a rich cultural history and pride in its Irish heritage.

To purchase Butte, America: http://butteamericafilm.org/contact/purchase-home-dvd/

15 Responses to “Butte: Montana’s Irish Mining Town”

  1. Nicu says:

    I want to work in the mine

  2. greetings from the other town the Irish built!!!
    heres a review of ‘Shamrock City’ you’ll hopefully find of interest.
    http://londoncelticpunks.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/album-review-solas-shamrock-city-2013/

  3. Jim Thompson says:

    Butte America was an interesting documentary. I give the Irish credit, they weren’t miners back home so had to learn on the job unlike their local rivals the Cornish who already had several thousand years of hard rock mining experience. Centerville was half Irish and half Cornish, the town had two of everything to cater to the two groups.

    • Martin Hurley says:

      A lot of the Irish in Butte were actually ex miners from West Cork in Allihies where the Cornish Family the Puxleys operated a mine employing 1600 people from 1812 on. As the mine was down graded and during the famine many miners moved to Butte.

  4. Aoife McGuinness says:

    My Great Grandad died in the fire in 1917.
    Dad calls his dog Butte in memory of it.

  5. louis says:

    Did the cornish and irish get along well with each orher down in the mines?

    • Jim Thompson says:

      Good question. Not one I have an answer for. I believe the Cornish preferred to work with fellow Cousin Jacks, but probably because they knew most were experienced hard rock miners. The Cornish also worked for tribute rather than pay. I don’t thing the Irish did, so I suspect the Cornish primarily used other Cornish miners to make up a team of tributers.

  6. Butte is a model for Vermissa, in Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear.. Identifiable by the coal mining, iron works and the bare crown mountains. Fenian leader, John O’Connor Power, visited in 1875. In the novel, he is Birdie Edwards/John McMurdo/Jack Douglas. And Moriarty.

  7. Patrick Mc Ginn says:

    My uncle, Mick Mc Ginn, emigrated to Montana in the 1920s. His uncle, name unknown, was already working there and took Mick out to USA.

  8. Colin Reed says:

    My great uncle Edmond Thomas emigrated from Cornwall and worked there after ww1 until the late 50’s. On my bucket list to go and see where he worked and lived. Interesting site you got here.

  9. I had 10 Grand Uncle’s and 2 Grand Aunts – all from th same Murphy Family , Castletown Bere – emigrate to the Butte mines. One of the Aunties was the seamstress for the Puxley Family. One of my G Uncles invented a special mining hammer the helped improve productivity., I’m sure he did not get paid any extra foe it though.

  10. Kevin Kelly says:

    My dad’s uncle Dan Kelly moved from Iowa with a law degree before 1910 and worked his way up, starting with Jefferson County Attorney, then Attorney General for Montana, then joined Anaconda and retired as a vice-president. I’m sure the political scene was a constant factor in his life, although I have yet to uncover anything more specific.

  11. Bernie (Bernadette) Downey says:

    My grandfather James Woods worked in Butte and Alaconda mines from around 1908 returning to Ireland every few years to his family and returning to Butte after approx. 2-3 years for another spell there. This continued up to his last return to Butte which was in 1925. When he returned to Ireland and his family finally he spent the rest of his life on his small holding raising fat cattle for sale. I do have some photos of his time spent there.

  12. Jane Lillis says:

    Butte partly inspired Vermissa in Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, 1914. Doyle spent several months in the US researching the Molly Maguires, who terrorised the communities of Pennsylvania. See ‘Moriarty Unmasked: Conan Doyle and an Anglo-Irish Quarrel’. pps. 49-57.
    Professor Moriarty frames the novel, in prologue and epilogue.

  13. Irish and Cornish miners would have been hard to understand they would have spoke in a pirate like accent.
    I am of both descent my great great grand father was cornish and my great great grandmother was born in south australia with irish decent.

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