By Dan Ganley
By understanding the origins of our own stories, we can better understand the journeys of others who continue to make their way in America. My relatives, for example, wound up in Butte, Montana, that most Irish of towns in America. With it came a better life, a life that helped build a strong America. And it also brought a fight to democratize workers’ rights through Union struggle, expand those rights through progressive coalitions, gain entrance into the halls of power, and pass on a bright future to those who came after. So my story includes an immigration that pushed us to America in pursuit of work to make a living, and pulled us to America to renew family ties.
But, how did so many Irish get to Butte? And what were the stops along the way? In the beginning of the last century, “copper was king.” And that phrase inevitably referred to the copper mines of Butte, Montana. The demand for copper by the end of the nineteenth century was extraordinary, electrifying the Gilded Age and fulfilling the needs of World War I in the early twentieth century. Many of the miners working in the grueling, dangerous, dirty copper underground, supplying copper for industry and the war, came from an area in Ireland where hard times were nothing new, but the norm.
My background family, the Harringtons, blacksmiths by trade, came from near the town of Allihies, in the copper mining region of the Beara peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. But during the Irish diaspora of the mid -19th century not all the Irish went to Montana. Some went to the copper fields of Ishpeming in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and as operations were opened in Minnesota, still others migrated there. Tower, Minnesota was the home of a large underground mine, the Tower/Soudan mine which opened in 1882 and finally closed in 1962. It produced high grade hematite often containing 65% iron. But opening twenty years earlier, by the 1880s, Butte was known for gold and silver plays. The economy boomed and drew many Irish.
My family moved around to all these areas, and it was in Butte where James Jeremiah Harrington married Bridget Dolan. Their son was named Dolan–from his mother’s family–and he met one of the Toohill girls from the Irish capitol of Nebraska, the little town of O’Neill. Her name was Genevieve. Dolan Harrington and Genevieve Toohil were married in Butte.
In 1917 the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster in a Butte copper mine became the most- deadly event in underground hard rock mining in American history, helping to change our lives today through resultant reforms, confronting the strangleholds on labor by Anaconda mining and complicit state machinery. Rejecting the injustice and exploitation of the time, Burton K. Wheeler brought about a powerful reform. An independent Democrat, he powerfully challenged the ruling power structures, always acting on behalf of working people. He championed the rights of Butte’s miners, ushering in improved working conditions and better lives.
Wheeler began his career as a Montana state legislator and then was appointed U.S. Attorney. In 1920 he won the Democratic primary for Governor of Montana and with it the support of the surging Non-Partisan League, a political powerhouse sweeping the west like a prairie fire. The NPL was not alone in seeking social change. The 1916 Easter Rising of Ireland—sometimes known as the Easter Rebellion–was part of a progressive era sweeping the globe. But starting in North Dakota in 1915 the NPL began as an agrarian reform movement that advocated state control of mills, grain elevators, banks and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of corporate interests, the railroads and grain elevator operators, who unfairly set prices. The NPL program for grassroots reform lives on today with North Dakota being the only state in the country with its own state Bank and state owned grain elevator.
Pragmatic and progressive policies were an NPL hallmark. Wheeler’s Montana ticket included an African American and a Blackfoot tribal member–remarkable for the time. Burton Wheeler went on to become the legendary U.S. Senator from Montana. A real Progressive, Wheeler was Senator for 24 years, elected to four terms, serving from 1924 to 1946.
While Senator in the 1930s, he gave an Irish lad from Butte a chance at a federal job as grain Inspector in Minneapolis. While grain inspector, he met and dated Betty Ganley, an Irish lass from a family of 13. The youngster was my uncle Cort Harrington. Cort went on to serve his country in WWII. A lieutenant in the United States Army, he landed at Normandy with the 4th Infantry division. Wounded on D-day plus 11, he considered himself damaged goods and because of his shattered arm, he broke off with Betty.
He toured the country selling war bonds, but still more was to come. Like a Hollywood movie, when Betty found out the reason for the estrangement, she reached out and they got back together. They married and moved to Montana where Cort continued service with the Federal government. He served for decades as an agent with the Treasury Department, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division, and then ed to the IRS. Cort’s long career with the federal government showed his children the way to public service. His family is peopled with educators and legals. His children’s children continue to be striving, thriving contributors to society. My story, the story of the Irish and the Irish in America still resonates, and, like yours, deserves to be told again and again.