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Letters From Butte

Letters from Butte

My Uncle Cog (Harry Cosgriffe) writes to me in a letter dated April 3, 2004, “A friend of mine wrote this poem.  He grew up in Butte....I can’t imagine what it took to go down into those mines.  Desperate men did desperate things.  Your grandfather had to do it so the family could survive....” The poem:

Reflections of Miner’s Son on First Viewing the “Pit”
The hell-deep pit
Reveals the rotting timbers
Copper green, raped, raw and ruptured earth
Stopes, drifts exposed in space
Where earnest men
Labored, despaired, died.

The scarred and broken hill
Laid desolate and waste
Mocks hymns of praise
To Him who authored earth.

Sterile statistics boast
With ill-claimed pride
Of record take of health from hill.
The “flats” claimed the human toll
With no memorial account
Of injustice, grief and pain
The price that flesh and spirit paid.

Yet, please God, let those
Who look upon this scene Remember in pride and silent prayer
Those men of many faiths and creed
Who gave their best for others’ gain.

Arthur E. McCartan

This piece of poetry brings to mind my grandfather’s letters, of which only three survive, written home to Harlowton in the winter of 1936 as he began his pursuit of work in the mines at Butte.  He is writing home to my grandmother, Annie Arthur Cosgriffe, who is in charge of the four children (a son, twin daughters, one my mother, and the baby, another son), making ends meet somehow and working with my great-grandmother Blanche Cosgriffe in the family business, a dray and freight operation.  The letters are dignified and heartbreaking as Harry Senior chronicles his efforts to find work and a way to survive in an alien, to him, world.  My grandfather’s father died when Harry was but twelve years old, living his final years in a tiny house behind the family home, a “sanitorium” built for him as he suffered through the final stages of tuberculosis, a residual from his enlistment and service in the Spanish American War.  My grandfather became the “man of the family” and, quitting school, helped run the family business, only once running from his responsibilities when he decided to decamp with a traveling circus and had a glorious sixteen-year-old summer driving animal cages and circus wagons about Montana.  He was an “outside” man and used to the high plains and friendliness of a small town.  Thrust into the “desperate” world of job hunting in Butte, he tells of the difficulties he faces:
Nov. 1st, 36
Dearest;
No luck as yet. There were three hundred men rustiling [?] at the Belmont mine the toughest mine in camp to work in and they hired about a doz of them.  And they only hire once a week, so you can see how tough it is....I’ve sure been rustling.  I’ve even got my name in at the transfer co’s. I mite go out to a small mine out of Anaconda next week if I don’t land something here.. Could have went today but I was a little afraid as I have been pretty sick with a cold and flu and damn homesick along with it....they say it has been tough for two months now they keep putting out card’s....Well kiss the kids even Jr and write me all the news.  All my love Harry.

Sat 12th , 36
Dearest;
This is all that i can spare this time as I am a little behind myself.  I stay with Butte long enough to get a payday anyhow.  I haven’t time to get a money order so I’ll mail it this way.  There is alway’s along string at both post offices....The shifter jumped onto my pardner twice last week but never has said anything to me.  Day before yesterday he came into the stops just as I was starting to timber and helped me about an hour.  All my love Harry.  If you haven’t gone to the bank again do so because I think the money will be here.

Dec.. 18TH, 1936
Dearest;
Am enclosing a ten so you’ll be sure to have enough for Xmas.  I had to miss a shift today its a wet place where I am now and my cold got me down.  Was sure sick this morning.  We work Sunday instead of Xmas so I’ll surely be home now.  And if I don’t get to feeling better before then...I had to buy myself a pair of miners rubbers today as much as I hated to part with the money.  My feet are soaking wet all the time and I never will get well that way.  We dident make the place we were in pay again this last week and they gave us another place much to my suprise.  I thought that it would be the can.  We get the five and quarter whether it pays or not thats why they get tuff if it dont.  Well only six more shifts and I’ll be seeing you.  As ever Harry.

The circle continues as my grandfather, too, dies relatively young thirty years later, when he is 56 years old, from a weakness of the lungs contacted during those difficult years in the mines.  For years, my mother would say, “My dad should never have gone to those mines....they gave him emphysema.” He certainly became part of the human toll of the “richest hill on earth.”
I have many emotions when I re-read the letters, penciled in on cheap lined paper—I feel close to my grandfather and think often of my little grandmother, struggling through those times, waiting for those “ten” dollar bills in the mail.  And I think of the power of letters, and the bits of story that they tell to people who care. 
I am grateful for those three short, poignant letters home to “Dearest”; they have told me more of the mystical relationship between two of the people I loved most in my life than any conversation I ever had with either of them.

Nancy E. Widdicombe
The poem and the letters are published as “found.”

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