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Butte residents remember nation's deadliest hard rock mining disaster

By Jacqueline Gedeon, KTVM Butte Reporter, jgedeon@ktvm.com
Published On: May 14 2014 06:22:05 PM MDT
Updated On: May 14 2014 11:20:01 PM MDT
BUTTE, Mont. -

With its rich history in mining, Montana has had its share of tragedy.

Butte residents look back at how the nation's most deadly hard rock mining disaster changed lives.

Dan McElroy knows one day in 1917 changed his family's life.

"Clarence Miller was my wife's grandfather," McElroy explained. "And his brother was Elmer, and they were both working in the Speculator Mine at the time of the fire."

It's not a coincidence the business he now owns opened its doors the same year as the mine disaster.

That year Clarence and Elmer Miller were working in the mines to save money to open a shoe repair business, but after surviving the fire, Clarence decided it was time.

"They started a little bit earlier than they planned on, and with a little less capital than they planned on," said McElroy.

The two scraped together what they had saved and opened what is now Butte's second oldest business.

Clarence didn't talk much about what happened underground, but the pictures tell the story.

"He sort of just shrugged it off; it was just one of those things that happened," said McElroy. "Plus I think so many people died in that, I think sometimes he felt like maybe you were lucky, but you felt bad because so many people lost so many loved ones during."

168 men died. Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives Director Ellen Crain showed NBC Montana the victims' names.

"At one time mining was considered one of the most dangerous occupations in the world," she said.

Crain knows Butte miners were trying to make it safer, but the worst happened.

"The foreman was going down to check the rigging on the rope and his carbide lamp caught the rope on fire and the rope fell to the bottom of the chute and it caught everything on fire," she explained.

Flames spread like wildfire.

"A lot of the men who were bulk-heading themselves into the stopes, the oxygen was getting low and as it got lower, they wrote letters to their loved ones," said Crain.

You can read some of those letters engraved at the Granite Mountain Speculator Memorial site, along with a recording of the last survivor of the mine disaster, Elmer Miller from today's Miller Shoes.

"My name is Elmer Miller," he begins in the recording. "I am 96 years old and I'm the last known survivor of the Granite Mountain fire that killed 168 men."

McElroy said he and his wife try to visit the memorial at least once a year, to hear their grandpa's story about the day that changed everything.

There will be a memorial service at the Mountain Granite Memorial site on Sunday, June 8 at 1:30 p.m.