Reading about mining history in Butte is one thing, but actually experiencing that history is something entirely different.
For this reason, it seems fitting that Jerry Sullivan — steering committee president for “No Greater Love,” the musical theater production depicting the 1917 Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire that premieres this weekend at Butte’s Mother Lode Theatre — spent the early part of his adult life working in the tunnels and shafts that weave below the Richest Hill on Earth.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Sullivan began working as a miner in 1969, an experience that he says makes the incidents of 1917 all the more tangible.
“I have a great deal of respect for the men who worked underground,” said Sullivan, who said he enjoyed the camaraderie among miners, which he said consisted of equal parts of “good men” and “wonderful humor.”
A lot had changed in the time span between 1917 and 1969. But during Sullivan’s time, there were still many dangers below ground, including from falling rock and timber; equipment failures; “bad air,” as Sullivan described it; and of course, from fire.
Because of the dangers involved, men looked out for each other below as well as above. Sullivan said if you called someone “pard,” short for partner, that was a term of endearment. A pard was someone who was your buddy, explained Sullivan; a pard was someone who had your back.
But the connection Sullivan has to the Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire runs deeper than just having worked as a miner.
Sullivan grew up with families affected by the fire. Julia O’Neill, widow of Con O’Neill, was one of his neighbors, and Sullivan went to school and served in the Navy with Ed Wolahan, O’Neill’s grandson.
Incidentally, the Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire loomed so large in his mind and in the collective consciousness of Butte that Granite Mountain Bank was renamed from its former name, Flint Creek Valley Bank, in memory of the disaster.
“I felt that we had an obligation to honor the men who were killed and their families,” said Sullivan.
Today Sullivan serves as chief executive officer and chairman of the bank.
As for the musical, Sullivan said he got involved in “No Greater Love” after being introduced to Gary Funk, the production’s creative director and composer, who asked if Granite Mountain Bank would be a major sponsor and if Sullivan would work on behalf of the project.
Sullivan described the board for “No Greater Love,” along with its creative and production team, as an “outstanding group of people who have given freely of their time and energy to make the event happen.”
The board recruited 168 donors for the $135,000 production of “No Greater Love,” Sullivan said, noting that the donor number is fitting because 168 men are estimated to have perished in the fire.
In addition to serving as board president of “No Greater Love,” Sullivan also recruited Irish artist Stephen Madden to create the art for the musical. Madden’s painting, titled “No Greater Love Than This,” depicts a smoke-ridden landscape in the moments after the disaster.
Sullivan has been acting as an ambassador of sorts for “No Greater Love.”
He took a trip to the town of Claremorris in Ireland — where descendants and relatives of some of the miners impacted by the disaster reside — to talk to kids at an Irish language school about “No Greater Love” and the events that inspired the musical.
There Sullivan was able to brush up on his Irish — yes, he speaks Irish — share copies of the Madden painting, and talk about Butte history.
He added that the area had its own memorial of the 100-year anniversary of the fire June 9.
Sullivan said he looks forward to the musical’s Friday- and Saturday-night performances, adding that art often has a way of digging deep into tragic events, where historical texts and newspaper articles can sometimes come up short.
“I think that the depth and the dimension of emotion can only be captured by the arts, by paintings, by music, by plays,” said Sullivan. “This is a very difficult subject to try to tell by that media, but once it’s told by that media, it’s something that generations from now will be able to connect with.”
But the story of 1917 isn’t just about Butte, Sullivan said, it’s a story that spans continents and is told in the languages of the people who immigrated to Butte to work in the mines
“I think this story is very, very much who Butte is,” said Sullivan. “Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims — they were all brothers struggling, working, and then died together up in that mine.”
The memorial for the Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine fire, meanwhile, reads like a parade of nations, with its series of flags that represent the home countries of the miners who died.
“That represents the universe, as far as I’m concerned,” said Sullivan.