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Big Sky’s falling

Take a tour of Montana when it all hit the fan

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Catastrophe. Disaster. Two of our words for the idea of a sudden calamitous event and the widespread misery that ensues have their roots—as is common enough in our fabulously mongrel language—in Greek and Latin: the former denoting a sudden overturning or turning back (of progress, happiness or good fortune), the latter implying an unfavorable aspect or alignment of starts or planets that augurs ill for human activity, either by our own machinations or from some stupendous force majeure.

From an etymological standpoint, something of the provenance of both words applies to each of the earthquakes, fires, train wrecks and massacres recounted in Molly Searl’s Montana Disasters. In the cases of fire and earthquake, it’s just humanity in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what better way to explain why some of us are lucky and some of us ain’t than to invoke the stars? Mining and railway accidents can be one or the other or all three: bad stars, human error and the desire of inanimate materials to respect the laws of decay and entropy—screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place. Then there are events like the Baker Massacre and Custer’s Last Stand, disasters of purely human contrivance whose avoidability (though perhaps not after a certain critical point) makes them all the more tragic.

Geography and unhappiness are the only common features linking the misfortunes described here. The inclusion of the Little Bighorn and Baker debacles alongside the Great Burn of 1910 or the Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959 might give pause to a few, but if the common outcome of a disaster is human misery, then they should be included. We’re a young and still sparsely populated state, after all. Things have had less time and more space to go wrong than in other places. In any case, the twinkling of cold stars hanging in silent judgment is about all the comfort and restitution most of these survivors got.

Searl is fair in her assessment of natural and unnatural disasters—that is to say, those caused not by human presence but by human action—and especially so when pointing out that wars of the type that provide her book with its first subjects chronologically are the most unnatural disasters of all. Her account of the travails Chief Looking Glass and his group of non-treaty Nez Perce underwent on their 1,300-mile flight to freedom in Canada and the tragedy that befell a group of Piegan in a horrendous case of mistaken identity makes for one of the most stirring chapters in the book.

The author’s retelling of the Battle at the Little Bighorn, a necessarily brief one, does a decent job of crystallizing a 15-page survey of the background and personalities involved out of the hundreds of books that have been written on the subject, almost miraculously summing up the order of battle in barely two pages! Custer buffs won’t get anything new out of it, but as an introduction to the worst defeat the U.S. Army ever suffered in a single engagement against Native Americans, it does a lucid enough job. The battle’s qualifications for disasterdom on several levels are also neatly described: disaster by sheer dint of loss of life, disaster for the Custer family (which lost three brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew in one day), disaster for the careers of Reno and Benteen, and, of course, the beginning of even more disastrous times to come for the Indians.

It’s difficult to discuss the Little Bighorn battle and its various aftereffects without falling into clichés and homilies, but for a short overview for inclusion in a thematic framework, Searl is admirably circumspect. Mining accidents also figure largely, most notably the 1917 Granite Mountain- Speculator Mine fire in Butte and an equally nasty (though slightly less fatal) incident at the Smith Mine near Red Lodge in 1943. Readers will quickly note that these and most of Montana’s other disasters seem oddly proportional to her population: 167 men died in the Speculator fire, 75 from various causes in the Smith tragedy; compare those figures to the 362 who died in a Monongah, WV coal mine in 1907, or 259 dead in Cherry, IL in 1909. Or, horribile dictu, 1,100 men and 98 horses killed by an explosion in a French colliery in 1906. None of these comparisons make the Speculator and Smith disasters any less gruesome; it’s just interesting that the resulting necrology seems strangely in keeping with the state’s population. The chapters devoted to the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the earthquake of 1959 have the most anecdotal accounts of persons stricken by the tragedies and thus read the most tragically human of any in the book—although the others are no less affecting. There’s also a short and curious chapter collecting all the other miscellaneous mishaps that didn’t quite warrant full chapters and seem somewhat faceless compared to the rest. Items in this catch-all include spring snowstorms, hailstorms, highway fatalities, the fatal plane crash of Governor Donald G. Nutter, the freezing winter of 1886-87 that all but wiped out Montana cattle husbandry, and a brief mention of the only four lethal tornadoes on the Montana books (a Mineral County twister killed two people in 1923; the other three claimed one life apiece). Like the rest of the book, it’s quick, clear, and lightly morbid. At any rate, Montana Disasters is not intended to be an especially scholarly work. Searl occasionally lapses into maudlin platitudes in summing up the tragedies she recounts, but, as mentioned, Montana Tragedies is a highly enjoyable read. There are plenty of disaster anthologies in print; what makes this one of interest to Montanans should be obvious.

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