Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

When you gotta go, you gotta go!

If you mention "Butte mining" to a young Montanan, chances are their first thoughts will be of the Berkeley Pit. However, open-pit mining in Butte didn't start until the mid-1950s. This week's picture is a symbol of the earlier years of underground mining; those years when Butte earned its title as "the Richest Hill on Earth."

How sweet it is (NOT!) . . .
The photo shows one of the "honey cars" that served as toilets for the men as they worked the mines deep beneath the surface of Butte. These "sweet" smelling rail cars consisted of iron tanks with toilet seats on top. The rail car design allowed the honey cars to be moved in and out of the mines on the same system of rails that was used to haul copper ore to the surface.

Hazards of working the underground mines . . .
The work of the underground miners was both demanding and dangerous. Occasionally parts of the mine would collapse, burying men beneath large pieces of rock referred to as "Dugans" (named after the family that owned the local mortuary). Fire was also a danger. In 1917 an underground fire 2,400 feet below the surface in the Granite Mountain Mine* killed 168 men. For those who survived careers underground, years of inhaling the dusty air often caused lung diseases that stole years away from retired miners.

Electrifying the USA . . .
The underground mines of Butte dominated world copper production between 1887 and 1920. By 1916 over 14,000 miners worked the underground mines on rotating shifts around the clock. At one point about a forth of the world's copper was coming out of Butte. As result, Butte is sometimes called "the city that electrified a nation" because Butte copper was used as wiring in homes. The light bulb had been recently evented and people all over the country wanted the new technology. By 1950, over 400 underground mines, consisting of several thousand miles of interconnected workings, had operated or were operating. The last underground mine closed in 1981.

NOTE: The photo was taken at the World Museum of Mining which is located near the campus of Montana Tech in Butte.

Terms: ore, open pit mine


*More about the Granite Mountain Mine Disaster
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By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School

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