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Last Rites for Evel Knievel

Butte, Montana.

What better place for a genuine daredevil, a legitimate death defying type with a lifestyle to match, to wrap it up? For I can’t think of one good reason that Evel Knievel did not die in 1969, at the age of 30, in the parking lot of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.

So it is a fitting home again for the guy on the motorcycle whose preference was once shots of Wild Turkey. But time is quickly running out and home again is a town with a history of young men dying young and violently. Bob Knievel may consider himself one of the lucky who dodged that bullet.

When a aspiring labor leader named “Big” Bill Haywood first visited here in 1899 he noted “the toll of death in Butte was abnormal.”  Thirty years after that visit, Haywood could recall that just the funeral benefits paid by the Butte Miner,s Union “staggered me.”  As far as Butte itself, he saw its cemeteries as, “the city of the dead, mostly young miners, and almost as large as the living population, even in this very young city.” Of course this is also the city where Haywood’s pal, Frank Little, met a violent end.

Nearly a half century later, in 1946, author John Gunther echoed Haywood, describing Butte as a place similar to an old European town where the cemetery population was far larger then the living population.  At the time of Gunther’s writing, 2,500 miners had died violently on the Butte hill.

Other deaths from other reasons such as miners consumption took an even heavier toll. And, as one who has looked at many of the coroner’s reports, I was struck by the matter of factness of the record keeping. While many of the reports, especially when multiple deaths were involved, are quite detailed, the greatest number were simply summed up in three words. “fall of ground.”  And from time to time I came across another description of a death underground, words that would reach out at you from the old pages and then grab you. The report simply said “blown to bits” and nothing else.

And we can find no shortages of descriptions of a day and a night in June of 1917 when twelve off-shift miners of a rescue squad crammed into a cage and dropped down to the 1600 level of the smoking shaft of the Speculator mine. As they stepped out of the cage, they were met with blasts from mine gas and the dozen men were instantly “blown to bits.”  In another attempt, two miners tried again to enter the mine in a double-decked padded cage. Failing in their effort, they signaled up to the hoist room and were quickly pulled to the surface. But it was too late. Above ground and in sight of hundreds of horrified miners, the ghastly cage came to a stop and slowly spun on the cable. It held only the smoldering remains of the two miners.

And all night and until early into that June morning in 1917, the sirens wailed on the hill and thousands of Butte residents crowded the streets and mineyards. Later the crowds were moved to a public morgue where many men women and children broke down completely. The tragedy of Butte’s Speculator-Granite Mountain mine today remain America’s greatest hardrock mining disaster.

Then there were scribes and scribblers describing the Butte feeling of death as “if it were in the air like the sulphur.” Two of the titles Dashiell Hammett considered for his Butte novel, Red Harvest were The City of Death and The Black City while Gertrude Atherton called Butte in her novel so titled The Perch of the Devil. For you see there was once an era when the grim news coming off the Butte hill was received as stoically as other lands greeted the news of combat casualties in wartime. And with little or no notice in the daily papers. As as far as working conditions went, Hammett noted in 1929 that when “the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Butte was a used firecracker. ”

Forgotten now, but like Evel Knievel, there was another famous young man from Butte with a controversial lifestyle. He was not as lucky, being shot to death a few days after his 24th birthday in 1911. A daredevil with a life style to match, but of a different sort, his name was Stanley Ketchell. A century later, this ragtime red-light Butte roustabout  is still considered one of the greatest boxers that ever climbed in the ring.

And this Ketchell guy crossed into myth despite the fact that he was a heavy drinker, gambler and womanizer. And if that wasn’t enough, he smoked cigars and had a well know taste for opium, the old Butte vice. Even Hollywood couldn’t have invented Stanley Ketchell.

As the old Anaconda Standard remarked on his passing: “for a long time Stanley Ketchell hung around the bad lands making his living in as easy a fashion as he could, but always ready to fight. He lived by taking on other fighters at resorts in the lower part of town where a prize fight was an added attraction to the varieties and the liquor.”

And finally dear reader, we have reached a point where I must close and you might ask a fair question and that is just what does this all mean?

Well many years ago, they seem like a thousand now, Knievel and I were both in Butte grade schools  Knievel went to the Webster Garfield and I was at St. Patrick’s where I learned the rosary and that Ireland must be ridden of the English and of course, to always vote the Democratic ticket. And like Knievel, I also grew up with the stories, tales of the mines on the hill and dynamite and gangsters as well as wandering a town surrounded by big cemeteries while the lving city was littered with mine yards with mine whistles, massive ore dumps, railroad tracks as well as saloons mostly open to all ages and a couple of blocks of brothels or what we called “cat houses.”

In other words, as far as Evel Knievel and Butte go, there is no disconnect.

Butte’s Evel Knievel Days, featuring motorcycle jumps by Robbie Knievel and world-record holder Ryan Capes, takes place July 27-29. For details, see  http://knievelweek.com/

JACKIE CORR lives in Butte, Montana. He can be reached at: jcorr@bigskyhsd.com

 

 

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