Like claim-jumpers seizing upon Butte history, a citizens group mightily chips away at creating a musical that will honor one of the city’s most definitive events: the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine Fire that killed 168 brave miners, considered the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history.
“No Greater Love” is a tale of two cities, one below ground in the mines and one above, where wives and children waited to hear the fate of their husbands, sons, and fathers.
The live performances premiere next summer, June 9 and 10, 2017, at the Mother Lode Theatre.
Led by musical director, composer, music professor, and singer Gary Funk, the committee is in the midst of crafting an original theatrical musical production to honor the men who died and their families left in the wake of the tragedy.
“There’s something about singing the music to help to parallel the history,” said Funk, who has connections to top-rated singers, musicians, set designers, technicians, and passionate Buttians keen on pulling together a quality show.
“There’s something about singing the music to people to parallel the history,” said Funk, “and what that disaster means to Butte and maybe even the nation itself.”
The major character is Manus Duggan, a 25-year-old Nipper who led a heroic effort to save his co-workers after a 1,200-foot cable broke loose in the Granite Mountain Shaft. It fell 1,000 feet. An open flame from a lantern accidentally sparked a roaring fire. Dense smoke and poisonous gas rolled into the tunnels, trapping and overwhelming hundreds of miners.
Janice Downey, committee member, drew the performance title “No Greater Love” from Duggan’s gravestone at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Funk and his wife Sylvia are writing a storyline and libretto that centers around Duggan as the protagonist.
The title hails from the Biblical verse, “No greater love hath any man than that he shall lay down his life for his friend.”
“Duggan’s job was to take tools to the miners, so he knew all the tunnels really well,” said Downey. “There were other people besides Manus who were heroes: two Irish guys who volunteered to go down the elevator shaft to warn the miners about the fire burned to death.”
Daunting as it may seem, the centennial committee is committed to using Montana actors and Montana orchestra players plus local talent behind the scenes.
Funk expects to assign a chorus of about 36 singers, cast about six professional actors, and form a chamber orchestra of about 12 musicians.
“We’re just so lucky to have Gary — and his love of Butte is amazing,” said co-organizer Mary McMahon.
Funk lives in Florence but travels to Butte regularly to teach voice lessons and work with the Montana Tech Chorale. Among his wide-ranging credentials, he has taught music in Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, and Montana.
Based on author Doug Ammons's writings in “Speculator Mine Disaster: 99 Years Later” and the poetry of Butte writers Joseph H. Duffy, Ed Lahey, and Seattle poet Brian William Taylor, the storyline will revolve around Duggan and Sully, the foreman who accidentally ignited the fire.
The time restrictions and format of a staged musical production prevent the writers from telling all the miners’ stories. But excerpts from Myron Brinig’s “Wide Open Town” and a narrating miner will bring to life Butte’s colorful characters and mining culture.
“I truly think it’s inspired,” said Downey. “We have a fantastic group.”
Other organizers are shakers and movers in their own right:
• Jerry Sullivan — raised on the hill by Irish immigrant parents, worked underground in three local mines after his discharge from the U.S. Navy, and now Granite Mountain Bank president.
• Mary McMahon — Deer Lodge native who has lived in Butte for 47 years; whose father and grandfathers were Butte miners and grandmother was a ragtime piano player in local silent movie theaters; and who has an extensive background in management, marketing, government, and other community work.
• Sandra Anderson-David — raised in eastern Montana and works at Spherion Recruiting and Staffing.
• Michael Duffy — Butte-born and raised, he practiced mine safety and health law in Washington D.C. for 35 years
• Irene Scheidecker — Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives representative who contributes critical support and resources and extensive stage costuming experience.
• Janice Downey — Centerville native with a 30-year career in news and publications; her father was an electrician for the Anaconda Company,and her grandfather was a shift boss in two of the mines.
McMahon and Downey are working with the school district to pitch student contests in poetry, art, and essays in order to educate the younger generation about the fire and men who lost their lives and left behind grieving families.
“I think it’s imperative for us to pass this history along to our young people now to ensure these people are remembered,” said McMahon.
She foresees the contests running from Feb. 1 to March 15 next year in order to give students and teachers time to research their mini-topic on the project.
But first things first. The group has raised $65,000 in pledges so far from local businesses and individuals to stage the production. Their ultimate goal is to raise $135,000, said Scheidecker, “to do a top-of-the-line production.”
One special effect may be projection mapping backdrops among other possible set designs. Much planning needs to be done to fit what Downey calls the “inferno, catastrophe, disaster” themes.
In order to finance the big production, the group will hold a fundraiser on Dec. 14 at the Archives in combination with the regular Brown Bag series starting at noon. Speakers include Funk, Ammons, and Sullivan, who will discuss the history and storyline of the show. (See info box.)
“The purpose of the Brown Bag event is supposed to be for Butte businesses, individuals, and philanthropists who want to support this project,” said Funk, who has already written the epilogue, a piece called “Break That Bulk Head Down.” It refers to the retaining wall trapped miners built during the disaster as a safety measure.
Funk often reminds others of the healing power of music.
“What do we do when we get together while going through a bad time?” he asked. “We sing.
“It isn’t until we sing a hymn at a funeral that we get choked up. There’s something about music, especially the singing of it, that drills down to our very core. That’s what we’re trying to do in this piece.”
Between now and next summer, suspense will likely build for the theater-going public.
Ultimately, “No Greater Love” depicts the chaos of the miners and rescuers thousands of feet underground — and those above who lived through the anguish.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor these folks,” said McMahon.