By John H. McIntosh and Berton Braley
Technical World - December, 1909
When the Berkley mine broke out afire the other day in Butte, Montana, sending five hundred men to the surface and suspending operations for a month in one of the biggest producers of the greatest mining camp on earth -- the camp that gives to the world's market one-fourth of its copper production -- the sight of the flames and smoke didn't cause as much as a ripple of excitement on the surface of the busy population at the foot of the hill, for Butte is accustomed to a mine fire that is perpetual and which burns with intense heat in the ground under her very business district.
It is a startling fact but none the less true that in the seventeen years past, thousands of men have been engaged in keeping in check the deadly fire in the Butte hill. It is a fight against a hidden foe. Except for brief intervals when the hot flames find an outlet, the fire is kept subdued by the smothering method, the theory being that it cannot spread without air on which to feed.
How it started and what keeps it alive is known to the copper miners of the northern Rockies, but the outside world has never been told, for the big companies controlling the mines have kept the talk of the wonderful fire fight down to a whisper.
When "Big Bill" Henshaw left his candle burning on a pine stull in a stope of the 1,800 level of the St. Lawrence mine seventeen years ago he little dreamed he was starting an underground conflagration that would last for generations and which would cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives to check.
Henshaw was coming off night shift in the early morning of September 6, 1892. The burly miner had reached the mouth of the man-way at the end of the stope when his attention was called to the dim light of the candle across the black hole in the ground.
"Goin' to leave the glim there, Bill?" his partner queried.
"Sure: what's the difference?"
"Oh, nothin', only today's Labor day and the next shift don't come on 'till tomorrow. I was just thinkin' if a fire started it might spread, bein' there's nobody around."
"To Hell with it; let's go!" was the short response.
They went out, but the fire didn't.
The end of the stull touched an upright post which was part of a set of timbers and which, in turn, was part of a system of timbers as great as the mine itself.
A copper mine is timbered from the bottom up, or rather from the top down. When the first level is cut and the blocks of ore are taken out, leaving holes -- stopes -- in the ground big enough to hold the Flatiron building, these holes are filled with square sets of heavy timber and each set is filled, jam up, with worthless rock known as waste or muck. The timbering supports the weight of the ground roof above. Thus ingenious man attempts, as nearly as possible, to leave the bowels of the earth as solid as when he first sent his drill against the walls of granite to extract therefrom the precious red metal.
Then the work goes on-down, down, deeper into the earth's interior. Another level is cut, a drift for the transportation of ore and the passage of the miners is run, other stopes are worked out and in turn timbered and filled in.
The levels are one hundred feet apart. A well timbered mine seldom caves, but the man who goes below the collar of the shaft of a loosely timbered mine takes his life in his hand.
Marcus Daly owned the group of mines to which the St. Lawrence belonged at the time the fire started and the once "Copper King" timbered his mines well. And so the St. Lawrence mine, with its close timber work through its eighteen levels, at that time represented an outlay of millions of feet of seasoned timber taken from the heart of the forests all the slopes of the Rockies. This network of stulls, girths, posts and caps, intertwined amid the rock waste, extended from the bottom of the mine to the surface and covered an area of ground that, were it hollowed out, would hold all the buildings of a city of 25,000 inhabitants.
The celebration of that Labor day was rudely interrupted a few hours after the night shift had turned in. Smoke was seen issuing, not only frolll the shaft of the "Saint," as the St. Lawrence is called in the copper country of the Northwest, but also from adjacent mines whose underground workings connected with it.
And then started the fight with the flames which has lasted all these years and which will last as long as the Butte mines are worth working.
Are they worth it? Consider that one thousand millions of dollars in copper have been taken from the mines under the streets of Butte and that three thousand millions are still stored there and judge for yourself if this marvelously rich hill of red metal is not worth saving from the rapacity of the flames.
"Big Bill" Henshaw gave his life for his careless act. The miner had left his candle burning on a pine stull and his partner's fears had been realized. Henshaw waked at midnight, heard the noise and saw the smoke. Rushing up the Anaconda hill he volunteered to be the first man to go down the shaft. He was entrusted with a giant rubber hose which was to pump air into the mine in stlch volume that the smoke would be driven into other channels, thus allowing an army of miners to get down and fight the fire.
The big fellow went down the shaft but never came back alive. The incinerated remains of his massive body were afterwards found at the station of the 1,800 foot level.
Others took up the fight, however, and two days after the fire started the smoke had been pushed into connecting drifts sufficiently to allow of fire fighting below.