In June 1917, my great-grandmother Mary Dwyer was about 5 months pregnant with my grandmother, her ninth child. My great-grandfather, John D. Dwyer, 39, worked as a station tender at the Tuolumne Mine; his brother James was at the Modoc. Both mines were near the Speculator, and there had been a fire at the Modoc just a month before. Con Harrington, Mary’s brother, likely worked at the
West Gray Rock, also nearby.
Like most of the Irish immigrants in Butte, they settled in Centerville and worked the mines nearby. Mary had not yet sent her oldest child underground. Richard was only 14 and still in school. His brother John, born in 1906 would live only one more year before succumbing to the flu in 1918. Mary had already lost one child – a twin – in childbirth in 1914. And now she was pregnant with Clara. Her last child, Emmet, was born in 1920 but died in training during WWII.
I’ve often thought about how difficult it must have been to be a mother a century ago. I’m sure as she heard the mine whistles blow on June 8, 1917, she thought of her husband, her brother, and her extended family. It must have been difficult to watch her sons follow their father into the mines. But it was not the mines that killed her offspring. One was stillborn, two died of illness (John and Daniel, who died at age 27 after a brief illness), and one by accident.
As we approach the anniversary of the Granite Mountain-Speculator fire, I reflect how lucky I am to have two healthy children, vaccinated against diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles. They will live to adulthood, attend college, and be spared the danger of working in the mines. The women before us were tough. They had to be to carry on in the face of relentless loss.