Granite Mountain Copper Mine Disaster 1917

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Date: 8 Jun 1917
Location: Butte, Silver Bow, Montanamap
Surnames/tags: Mining_Disasters Disasters Montana
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Disasters | Mining Disasters | United States Mining Disasters |Montana, Mining Disasters | Granite Mountain Copper Mine Disaster, 1917

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History and Circumstances

  • Date: 8 Jun 1917
  • Location: Butte, Montana
  • Victims: 167ɫ deaths, 2 injuries
  • Cause: Copper Mine Fire
ɫ There were some discrepancies in the official toll of death. The memorial created for the miners states 168 miners died, the number assigned by author Michael Punke in his book, Fire and Brimstone, is 164, and the total list of names equals 167.

Mine History

Butte, Montana miners
As California moved from individuals digging gold to a more industrialized form in the 1850's, miners turned inland to stake out mining claims.[1] In 1862, when the East Coast was caught up in the Civil War; Montana miner's found rich sources of gold in their growing claims.[1] The Granite Mountain mine in Montana was running in full force in 1917. The mine was so large and diverse that "No Smoking" signs were posted in sixteen different languages.[1][2] More than thirty languages were spoken in the nearby town.[2] Thousands of miles of underground mining shafts ran beneath Butte.[1] The state of Montana had recently entered the most "acrimonious episodes of labor strife" in a long history of animosity between the miners and the corporations, yet still Granite Mountain supplied large amounts of copper.[3] In April of 1917 the United States entered into World War I, which called for an increased need for copper.[1][2] Just three days before the mine disaster occurred, 2,500 people marched on draft registration day in an anti-war protest.[1][3] The rally turned into a riot and the National Guard was called in.[3] Though peace was quickly established, some saw it as an ominous portent of the tragedy yet to come.[3]

Mine Disaster Circumstances

A fire broke out in the Granite Mountain mine just before midnight.[1][3] Billows of toxic smoke poured down the shaft and into the mining tunnels.[3] Within minutes the miners smelled the smoke and realized the danger.[3] Despite this, and the fact that it had much better ventilation fans for fresh air; the miners were trapped within the tunnels and quickly ran out of air.[3]
For God's sake, get the men out!" [Sully] yelled. "Get 'em out!"[1]
Many of the miners were unfamiliar with the intricate tunnel layouts. Had some of them run towards the Badger Mine tunnels, instead of toward the Granite Mountain entrance, they most likely would have survived.[1]
"There was panic on the ladder [and in the mine], ...the men struggled to sort through the chaos. Some resigned themselves to death, begging stronger men to pass along notes to their families. Some shouted curses Some whispered prayers. Most struggled forward, desperate to breathe again in the light of the day."[1]
As miners rushed towards the Granite Mountain entrance they were turned back due to the heavy smoke and fire.[1] The majority of those who climbed back down to the 700 from the 600 level died.[1] Others were lucky enough to head for the Speculator mine tunnels. They still had lights and working hoists and were able to lift the miners to safety.[1] Two miners, John Boyce and John Camitz, used their wits. Boyce cut two openings in a power drill line and they stretched out on the floor, covering their heads and breathing in the air from the hose.[1] Boyce was thinking "We surely must die" but survived after four hours in this position.[1] One group of twenty-nine men built a bulkhead to isolate them from the fire.[2] They were not found until thirty-eight hours later.[2] Another group of eight men did the same.[2] They were trapped for fifty hours, with two of them not living to breathe the air above.[2] There were many other tales of heroism and bravery, but even more of loss and tragedy. Some families, like that of James D. Moore, had been too far away to see him before the tragedy occurred. His mother sent a telegraph request, hoping for some small amount of contact:
"If my son Jas D. Moore left letters for mother sister Lee or Ben kindly send me copies of smae by mail let me know cost of same and will send you money if he left the above letters wire yes at my expense." Mrs. M. D. Murphy, San Jose, California[4]
Punke later remarked that "Crisis reveals true character, What the crisis of June 1917 in Butte revealed was how amazing Butte is: the humanity of the place and the strength and character of the town.”[1]

Results and Findings

The death toll number varied from source to source. Out of the 250 men that tried to make their way from the mine, at least 150 were fatally trapped, and thirteen more died after escaping the tunnels.[3] If one counted the Speculatorminers, there were about 450 miners down in the tunnels.[1] In an ironic twist, the fire itself was accidentally started by crews trying to improve safety for the miners.[1][2][3] The sprinkler system they were installing would be ready to use in less than a week.[1] One of the men on that crew, Ernest "Sully" Sullau,[1] was climbing over timbers to reach across the shaft where they were trying to install an immense electrical cable.[2][3] The open flame he was using for light quickly sparked a fire. A second fire was started when he yanked the open lantern back without thinking.[1] The fire spread so quickly, as the cable was wrapped in oil-soaked rags,[1][3] that there was no hope for the majority of the miners to escape it. Other precautions, like the communication and warning systems, were down and added to the lack of successful rescue.[1] The death total is listed as anywhere from 163 to 168. As of 1 January 2020 it is still the largest loss of life in a mining disaster in the state of Montana. It was said in 1910 it was "the most deadly underground hard rock mining event in U.S. history."[5]

In Memoriam

See the category for a list of the men that died in the copper mine fire.

Miner Deaths

Miner Deaths
Name Sourced Bio Connected Category
Francis H. Allen
Nels Anderson
Jovain Bajovich
Peter Barros
Henry Bennetts
George W. Bigcroft
John B. Bixby
John Bjornstrom
Alex Borden
Sam M. Borden
John J. Brady
Daniel Budovinac
Tim J. Callahan
James Cavella
John Cavella
Ernest L. Chapman
John Chytil
Mike Conroy
Chale Covacevich
Francis G. Curran
Yoko Dabcovich
Albert H. DeBoer
Tom Dillon
Dan Doherty
Pat Doherty
Nick Donich
Neil Dougherty
Manus Duggan
Mulaki Durkin
Philip Erakovich
Emil Erickson
Fred Erickson
Pat Fegan
Maurice A. Fitzharris
The full list of miner's names can be found on

Mine Survivors

  • Mike Jovitich, Eastern European immigrant, had only been at the mine for three weeks, heard someone yell "fire" and escaped.[1] Had he and his small group not listened to Sully and let him turn them in a different direction, they may not have made it.[1] He returned to the mine to try and rescue others but the smoke and fatigue made him collapse.
  • John Boyce, miner, breathed air from a drill hose until escape was possible[1]
  • John Camitz, miner, breathed air from a drill hose until escape was possible[1]


  • Manus Duggan, a nipper, saved the lives of 25 men, died after returning to the mine to save others
  • J.D. Moore, saved the lives of 6 men, died within the mine, wrote out his last will while awaiting rescue
  • John "Baldy" Collins, shift boss, immediately tried to help douse the fire, worked on attaching additional cages so more men could be hoisted at one time
  • Angus McLeod, a firefighter, one of the first to start removing bodies
  • George Lapp, a firefighter, one of the first to start removing bodies
  • Jack Bronson, shift boss, knew the safer exit was towards the Badger mine. He led a group of men toward safety but not all of them made it (6 remained behind).[1]
  • W. T. Wynder, a young man, led a small group away from the Granite Mountain entrance to safety[1]
  • Ernest "Sully" Sullau, 48, electrical crew, accidentally started the fire, returned to the mine to rescue others, he sent at least 50 men to safety[1]


Museums & Memorials

  • World Museum of Mining: Offers tours and exhibits of mining artifacts and buildings.
  • Underground Mine Tour – 65 Ft Level: Has an underground tour reaching a depth of 65 feet. Children under the age of four are not allowed on the tour.
  • Underground Mine Tour – 100 Ft Level: Offers an underground tour, reaching a depth of 100 feet. This location is at the Orphan Girl Mine.
  • Clark Chateau: The historic home of Charles and Katherine Clark. Guided tours are provided and various exhibits are present at the location. Charles Clark was the son of the copper king, W. A. Clark.

Genealogy Resources

Mining Resources

  • Punke, Michael. "Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917," (NY: Hachette Books, 2013).
  • Vrtis, George. "Mining North America" (CA: University of California Press, 2017).


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 Punke, Michael. "Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917," (NY: Hachette Books, 2013).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 "The Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial" (, viewed 4 March 2020.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Parrett, Aaron. "The Granite Mountain - Speculator Mine Disaster," (, viewed 4 March 2020.
  4. "North Butte Mining Company records, 1905-1934," North Butte Mining Company, ( : accessed 12 March 2020), entry for a telegraph from Mrs. M. D. Murphy, 1917, citing business records of the mining company.
  5. McCarthy, Brooke. "Butte community remembers victims of Speculator Mine disaster" (, viewed 4 March 2020.

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Page last updated 13:09, 12 March 2020 (UTC)

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