A grim reminder

A new audio version of a 2006 book offers some important lessons about our not-so-distant past.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

FIRE AND BRIMSTONE: THE NORTH BUTTE MINING DISASTER OF 1917. By Michael Punke. Read by Christopher Grove. Random House Audio. 9 hours, 17 minutes. $20.

fireWrite a novel that’s made into an Academy Award winning movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the publishers of your previous works, even a local history, will rush to reissue and create an audiobook. That’s what’s happened to Michael Punke, author of The Revenant, and his 2006 history of one of America’s worst-ever mining disasters.

Just before midnight, June 8, 1917, a fire in the main shaft of the Granite Mountain mine set off a disaster that cost 164 lives. This is a history of the courageous men who tried to rescue their fellow miners, of those who died in the mine and of the families left behind.

But, as compelling as that narrative is, there is a bigger story here, one of corporate America, from the Gilded Age through the 1920s, with some strains continuing well beyond to the early 21st century.

Butte, Montana, was the home to some of the world’s best copper deposits and, as fate would have it, that copper was discovered about the time when world demand spiked because of the harnessing of electricity.

Punke begins his history just as prospectors are finding the copper, and he carries it through the vicious business and personal rivalries of the late 19th century and early 20th. The stories involve political corruption at its most flagrant and the rivalries of the national unions that sought to represent the miners.

As one fortune after another is made, corporate mine consolidation progresses. In the end, only Standard Oil remains after it has swallowed Anaconda Copper and brought with it harsh labor standards and one of the worst political oligarchies the U.S. has ever known. The power of that oligarchy is on full display when, after an unfavorable court ruling, Standard Oil shuts its Montana operations and throws the entire state into an almost instant Depression. The governor and legislature had no choice but to bend to the company’s demands.

Along with all of the bad guys, there are heroes. B.K. Wheeler is the local U.S. attorney who fights courageously for the miners and then surprisingly appears, years later, as a key player in one of the U.S.’s most significant political crises. There is also Maness Duggan, whose leadership in the mines allows more than 20 men to survive the fire.

Americans of late have forgotten the conditions under which their great grandfathers worked. Many don’t know why unions were needed, or why government safety and antitrust laws ever passed. This book is a grim answer, a painful one at times, to those questions.

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