On Wednesday afternoons in Butte, members of the Anaconda/Arco Retirees Club gather in their makeshift hall at the Blaine Community Center for coffee, doughnuts and a few games of pool.
The aging white cinderblock building sits at the top of Main Street, overlooking much of Butte and the remnants of the massive copper, gold and silver mines the city was built upon. At the far end of the club’s meeting room, resting on a chalkboard tray, a large wooden plaque memorializes members who’ve died since the club was started in 1985, three years after Arco shut down the Berkeley Pit.
At its peak, in the early 20th century, some 14,500 miners worked on rotating shifts around the clock on “the richest hill on earth.” Butte produced close to a third of the nation’s copper during those boom years. Today, Montana Resources’ Continental Mine is the only active mining operation left in town. Reopened in 2003 after three years of suspended activity due to high energy costs and a poor copper market, the Continental open pit mine employed about 360 workers in 2005.
Like the city itself, the former Blaine School building is deteriorating in the void left by the shuttering of major mining operations in the early 1980s. Inside, the men who once worked the rope gangs, sank shafts, and bored deep into the earth in the last days of Butte’s rich mining history sip coffee and beer and relive their glory days around pool tables felted the color of the Berkeley Pit’s exposed cliffs.
Last Wednesday, conversation included talk of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 miners and left another in a coma earlier this month. The type of mining the Butte hard-rock miners did—some for 30 or 40 years—differed considerably from the underground coal mining common in West Virginia. The Butte miners didn’t have coal dust explosions and black lung to worry about; however, these men were no strangers to the dangers of working deep underground, where collapsing roofs, unbearable heat and deadly air were potential perils.
In 1917, Butte was the site of the worst metal mining disaster in United States history when the Granite Mountain mine fire claimed 168 men, contributing to the deadliest metal mining year ever, with 983 miners killed nationwide.
By the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the Anaconda/Arco retirees first went to work, improvements in mine safety and new mining techniques had brought national death tolls down to around 150-300 per year, but mining was always dangerous work.
“It could be pretty bad sometimes,” says Tony Jangula, 74, a retired miner with 31 years of experience. “I retired from New Butte [Mining Inc.] because of bad air. It almost killed me off.”
Jangula, the last living member of the crew that reached the mile-deep mark in the Mountain Con mine when shaft-sinking crews reached 5,280 feet below the earth’s surface in 1961, says he still doesn’t know what, exactly, was in the air he inhaled while mining in 1989 that caused his lungs to fill with fluid and left him in intensive care for more than a week.
George Lewis, a former contract miner, says mine safety improved incrementally over the course of his career, but responsibility rested mostly in the hands of miners themselves, and inexperience could be deadly.
“A lot of people come here and wanted to work in the mines,” explains George Lewis, a former contract miner. “It didn’t make any difference who you were or where you’re from, they hired them all and put them down in a strange place and they didn’t know nothin’.”
Lewis contends that mine safety wasn’t a top priority of most of Butte’s mine bosses.
“Every time someone got killed they got excited and cleaned up pretty good,” Lewis says. “But I always figured the attitude was: it was always cheaper to hire another man than to fix something up. You had a hard hell of a time getting them to do anything.”
Mining deaths in Montana are rare today, mostly because underground mining is a nearly extinct practice. According to the federal Mine Safety and Heath Administration, there are only four active underground mines in the state: an underground coal mine in Musselshell County; a copper mine in Lincoln County; and two platinum mines in Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties. Of Montana’s eight mining-related deaths since 1993, six occurred at underground mines.
After half a dozen or so games of eight ball, the men gather around a long table in an old classroom adjacent to the pool room and drink more coffee, eat doughnuts and play their weekly raffle. They trade nursing home rosters like baseball stats, exchange combat stories from World War II and Korea, and fondly remember their working days in the mines. Despite the everyday dangers and drudgery of mining, they recall their days underground with pride.
“I loved mining,” says Ed Drabant, a 26-year mining veteran. “I always thought if you were careful, it was safer working in the mine underground than driving down the highway.”
These old miners survived the pits and shafts of Butte’s copper mines, but now they’re falling victim to old age, diabetes, and heart failure. With each new name added to the memorial plaque, a piece of the living history of Butte’s mining legacy disappears. Of the original 480 members of the Anaconda/Arco Retirees Club, 220 are alive today. And as long as some remain, there will be a Wednesday pool game at the old Blaine School at the top of Main Street.