Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Photo: Speculator Mine

Happy weekend! It's going to be a busy one for me. I'm signing books at Barnes and Noble in Bozeman on Saturday, and that evening I'm leading a ghost tour in Nevada City starting at 6:30. Get in touch with the Montana Heritage Commission if you'd like to join me. In the mean time, here's a stark stereograph of Butte and another ghost story:

There was always work in the mines at Butte. In fact, there was such demand for miners that immigrants who spoke no English, upon arriving at Ellis Island in New York, were herded onto trains bound for Butte, Montana. But it was dangerous work. In the miles of interconnected tunnels, miners worked their shifts. Above ground, soot blocked the sunshine, sulfur choked the air, and cyanide let nothing grow. Butte surely lured her men with promises of the American Dream, then crushed them in her metal, suffocated them in her tunnels, and killed them with her dust.  The steel headframes that loom against the horizon earned their own nickname: gallows frames, or widow makers. They supported the hoists above the mineshafts where waiting cages carried the men deep into the hill.

This stereo view by N.A. Forsyth shows Butte c. 1910
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.100
It’s no surprise that Butte is a haunted place. On June 8, 1917, a carbide lamp at the North Butte Mining Company’s Speculator Mine ignited frayed electrical insulation in the Granite Mountain Shaft. Fire spread, and carbon monoxide and other deadly gasses swept through the tunnels, killing more than 160 men. Some died instantly, but others had time to scrawl poignant goodbye letters to their families, in the darkness, as the oxygen ran out.  Facsimiles of their final words fringe the monument overlooking the mine. The mine reopened in 1940, and for three miners who worked a first shift, it was a chilling experience. Once underground, the men heard the sounds of heavy breathing. And why wouldn’t they? A tragedy like that in the Granite Mountain shaft—sealed for more than twenty years—left an indelible imprint of men in their final hours, deep in the earth, gasping for air as the oxygen ran out.


  1. Always nice to see posts on Butte, but there are some errors:

    Cyanide was never used in Butte. It is a gold processing chemical and, in spite of its widespread and unregulated use, is responsible for only five documented human deaths.

    The headframes did not support the hoists, only the sheave wheels that supported the cables from the hoisting engines on the ground to the cages hanging in the shafts. They were never called "widow-makers". That term was reserved for the early compressed air drills which blew out clouds of dust, eventually killing the miners with silicosis, miner's consumption, "The Con".

    The Granite Mountain shaft was not sealed. It was repaired and back in production within a few weeks.

  2. Good call Larry... also the photograph in the story is the "7 stacks of the Neversweat Mine" with the stack from the Anaconda Mine behind, the Speculator Mine was up over the hill from this photo!

  3. Great content. Thanks for the post and the effort writing it. This is a remarkable article that I have enjoyed.