Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke

Mark Twain, who knew William Clark personally, said that “by his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.”

With diabolical brilliance, Fritz married his knowledge of Butte’s geology with a pernicious mining law known as the Apex Rule. According to the Apex Rule, rights to underground mineral holdings were determined by the location where a particular vein came closest to the surface, or reached its apex. If a company owned the apex, it could follow the vein below ground to wherever it led—including ground beneath another owner’s surface property. Using his knowledge of mine engineering, Heinze began to identify and purchase strategic apex properties—many of them next to Anaconda (later Amalgamated) holdings. Then he pirated their ore. Lawsuits sprang up like weeds.

“If they crush me today they will crush you tomorrow. They will cut your wages and raise the tariff in the company stores on every bite you eat and every rag you wear. They will force you to dwell in Standard Oil houses while you live and bury you in Standard Oil coffins when you die.”

When a Butte miner walked to work, he traversed one of the most god-awful ugly cities in America. Which is not to say there was no beauty in Butte. There was, but like the miner’s job, it lay deep below the surface. For its citizens, the town’s ugliness was practically a point of pride. Butte, they understood, was first and foremost a mining camp. It was organized like a mining camp—for short-term expediency, with the expectation of imminent abandonment. Somewhere along the line, its inhabitants decided to stay, building a cosmopolitan city on top of a mine.

It was not just the miners’ union that flourished. Butte, it seemed, had a union for everything. Almost every trade group was unionized, including construction workers, brewers, beer wagon drivers, blacksmiths, jewelers, smeltermen, engineers, horseshoers, hackmen, and teamsters, not to mention separate unions for musicians, theatrical stage employers, and theatrical ushers. In Butte the chimney sweeps—both of them—had their own union. Even the unions had a union—an umbrella group known as the Silver Bow Trades and Labor Assembly.10 For a variety of reasons, unionism and the Butte Miners’ Union flourished under the rule of all three Butte Copper Kings.

The board member with the most strident antidraft viewpoint was a man named Frank Little, the executive chairman. “They’ll run us out of business anyhow,” argued Little. “Better to go out in a blaze of glory than to give in. Either we’re for this capitalistic slaughterfest, or we’re against it. I’m ready to face a firing squad rather than compromise.” The meeting would end with no formal decision on the draft issue, and members of the IWW executive committee dispersed. Frank Little’s next stop would be Butte, Montana.

Armed with the restrictive language of the Montana Sedition Act, the newly potent Montana Council of Defense was primed for action. The legislators of the Extraordinary Session, though, had a few more axes to grind. They passed into law the Criminal Syndicalism Act, effectively making the IWW an outlaw organization. So deep-seated was fear of pro-German activity that the Montana Legislature went so far as to pass a law requiring the registration of guns.

  • A Great Read about the Mine Fire, Anaconda's Control of Montana, and the Forces that Shaped Labor in The State


The only real drawback of the book is that the shift from the history of the mine doesn’t leave enough time to cover some of the topic raised, like Burton Wheeler, Frank Little and others as well as they could be.