When Butte wouldn't shut down

The devastation of the 1918 flu and our collective trauma

I’ve been taking a lot of long walks in graveyards as the Covid-19 pandemic closes in across America, reaching its tentacles out here into sparsely populated Montana. These strolls are not grim, but rather they’ve been helping me piece together a puzzle of my hometown that’s resonant with our current national crisis. So many people buried in these grounds died 102 years ago in a flu pandemic, in part because powerful people in the city refused to shut everything down to stop the spread of the virus.

Butte’s cemeteries are its best history museums, the places you can really see how society was segmented by wealth and power, especially in years past when the place was at once very rich and very poor. Immigrant miners pulled copper from the depths of the earth, giving their families a precarious foothold in America and making a few bosses very rich on the sale of minerals and other business endeavors. At one time, 10,000 men worked underground in the city, but very few saw real riches.

My grandparents used to take me wandering in Butte’s cemeteries, so these places are where I learned that wealthy people got bigger monuments, elaborately engraved marble tombs and mausoleums, while the poorest often only had wooden crosses to mark their resting spots. I was confused when I was young at the absence of extravagant graves in Butte for the three men who controlled the early days of the mining industry here. The uber-rich, the Copper Kings who extracted city’s ore and exploited its immigrant workforce, are buried in faraway cities that took the wealth from Montana. The graves of F. Augustus Heinze and Anaconda Copper Co. founder Marcus Daly are in the same cemetery in Brooklyn, while that of nakedly corrupt mining mogul and former US Sen. from Montana William Clark is buried elsewhere in New York. The toxic waste from their mining operations is still here, still a source of contention, but the men who harnessed labor to build the industry are buried far away, in places where they are mostly unknown.

Butte’s graveyards are where I first learned about the Spanish flu, the epidemic that swept the United States in 1918. The cemeteries hold pockets of people killed by the flu, many taken suddenly in their 20s and 30s. Butte, then nearly 100,000 people, was a wide-open mining camp with worldwide connections that was hit harder than any other in place Montana, a state among the worst-struck in that epidemic. Upwards of 1,000 people died in Butte of the flu from 1918-19, nearly a third of all the flu deaths in the state. You can see their graves, but they don’t explain why Butte was so badly affected. To put it simply, the city, a sprawling tribute to America’s potential that prided itself on running mines, bars and brothels 24 hours a day, wouldn’t heed all the warnings to close everything down.

When the flu came to Butte, health officials decreed, “all schools, churches, moving picture houses, theaters, parades, bargain sales in stores, cabarets, dance halls, public dances and all public gatherings be discontinued until further notice, on and after 12 o’clock midnight, the 10th of October 1918, by the order of the county board of public health,” the Anaconda Standard wrote.

“The disease spreads swiftly and if an epidemic should obtain a good start in the city, physicians declared it could not be stamped out quickly.”

Yet the saloons were not shuttered; the epidemic got a good start in the city. In October, the flu killed nearly 10 Butte residents every day. The high school was repurposed into a hospital ward and still, much of the city remained open for business.

The papers - there were several local papers back in those days - are also filled with tales of locals refusing to stay home, to suspend business, to quit enterprises that risked their lives. Despite the edicts, business carried on in the mining camp.

Adherence to the rules and the rules themselves ebbed and flowed. A World War I victory parade drew thousands to the streets in early November, and deaths climbed again in the aftermath. Butte’s government finally shut the city down on the last day of November, 1918. The deaths began to slow.

It’s impossible to read through these archives without thinking how little we’ve changed, in spite of the century elapsed and billions of dollars poured into biomedicine and global health. Our current moment, with the US president and other political and business leaders talking about how the nation needs to get back to work, that the treatment for deadly Covid-19 might be worse than the disease, is hauntingly familiar. From wandering through Butte’s graveyards, I can assure you, the cure is not worse than the disease.

The deadly flu outbreak was only the middle of a long traumatic period that shaped this place. A year before the flu ignited, 168 miners were killed when a fire swept through the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine, the worst underground hard-rock mining disaster in world history. Two months after that disaster, union organizer Frank Little was dragged from his boarding house and murdered in Butte. His grave, along with some of the Granite Mountain victims, is not far from a pocket of graves for people who died of the flu here. All this alongside a years-long series of federal troops appearing in town to quash labor unrest.

It was a long time ago, but collective trauma lives on in this city. Things are very different today in Butte but if you ask people who’ve been here a while, everyone seems to know of someone who died of the flu a century ago. With its collective memory of trauma, Butte was the first larger Montana city to shut down its bars and restaurants in response to the creep of Covid-19, surprising the rest of the state by preemptively cancelling its large St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

I wrote a little story about Butte’s response to Covid-19 this week and in the course of reporting it, called Father Patrick Beretta, a Catholic priest in town who has studied how communities around the world build resilience. He told me Butte’s greatest strength – its cohesion as a community with a shared history and purpose – could also make this an especially difficult period for the city. People are staying home, mostly following social distancing guidelines. But that’s against the nature of what a close-knit town does when crisis hits, which is to mobilize, visit people’s homes, bring meals and comfort to the suffering. That doesn’t mean our outlook is bleak.

“Butte has all the qualities of resilience. Butte responded to tragedy invariably in the sense of healing and uniting. Those are the communities that make it. The ones that fragment… those are the ones that collapse and they never really recover,” Beretta told me.

One of the nastier aspects of our current pandemic is how the virus weaponizes human contact, the very thing we need most right now in our fear and grief. What I can tell you is Butte survived.

It’s an important thing to remember in this moment when some of our loudest political leaders are hinting that human lives matter less than the stock market. When you hear that reopening the economy is preferable to warnings of public health experts who want us to stay home and distance ourselves, remember the graveyards in Butte.

If you want to read more about the century-old mistakes that led to more than 1,000 deaths in Butte from the flu, there are many resources. Two of the best are here and here. Janelle Olberding wrote a whole book about it. Stay safe.