Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Children in the Mining Camps

Children who spent time in the mining camps of Montana faced numerous dangers. Typhoid and cholera plagued mining camps because miners quickly polluted the water source. But measles, whooping cough and diphtheria also invaded the communities. In 1889, diphtheria in the great silver camp of Elkhorn, for example, claimed almost all the children, including the Roberts sisters whose poignant tombstone tells the tragic tale.

During that same year, Harry Walton, 9, and Albin Nelson, 10, somehow escaped diphtheria, but they found a quicksilver container full of black powder. Adults filled these containers to detonate for community celebrations like the Fourth of July, and had overlooked this one. The boys managed to explode it and blew themselves to bits. They share a grave in the small cemetery. Mining-related accidents, mine shafts, and explosives posed real dangers. But of all the mining camps, the huge metropolitan industrial hub of Butte was probably the most dangerous place for youngsters. Growing up in Butte made children tough and unusually daring. They seemed to thrive in the polluted air and unsanitary conditions frequently noted in reports to the Board of Health. One Butte native who grew up there in the 1930s and 1940s recalled that mine officials came around to his elementary school and showed the kids what a blasting cap was, warned them not to pick them up, and showed them the explosive inside. After the lecture, every boy went out in search of caps. They poured the powder into a bottle with a wick, put it on the train tracks, preferably on a trestle, and hoped it would explode as a train passed by. Children lost limbs to this form of play, but danger made the game that much more fun.


  1. Thanks for the history . My dad blew his hand off with blasting caps in Jardine , Mt . He was 9 years old . It was 1926 . He also had a piece of the metal in his eye most of his life . A doctor removed the piece when dad was older . You're doing us a favor by publishing this history.

    1. this is a worthy comment. He was lucky to have survived his childhood.