Today in the 1913 Copper Strike

One of several plaques adorning the Italian Hall memorial arch at the heritage site in Calumet. (Photo by Lindsay Hiltunen, June 2013)

One of several plaques adorning the Italian Hall memorial arch at the heritage site in Calumet. (Photo by Lindsay Hiltunen, June 2013)

100 years ago today the Women’s Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners hosted a Christmas party for striking miners and their families. Organized by Anna “Big Annie” Clemenc, the party was intended to boost morale and provide Christmas festivities for the children, many of whom came from families who were struggling to get by after many months of striking. The party was in the second-floor ballroom of the Italian Hall building in Calumet, but it was attended by people of various ethnic groups, including Finnish, Croatian, and Italian to name a few. There was caroling, a Christmas tree, oranges and other hard to come by foods, candy, and a visit from Santa Claus.  However, after the festivities began someone – to this day nobody knows who – yelled “Fire!” The cry of fire caused a calamitous rush for the narrow stairway down to the first floor. In the chaos people were tripping and becoming jammed on the stairs, leading to a horrific stampede.  People were crushed and suffocated. By the time all had calmed down 73 people, mostly children under the age of 16, had perished in the stairwell stampede. There was no fire.

The tragedy itself remains a focal point of the strike and still remains an event of much historical debate. The tragedy has inspired many historical texts, songs, stage performances, several documentaries, exhibits, and research. However, despite the attention paid to the tragedy, its aftermath, and its context within the strike, there is still much grief, uncertainty, and debate surrounding the Christmas party and the subsequent loss of life.

To commemorate the strike and the centennial of the tragedy the Village of Calumet will be hosting a vigil at the Italian Hall heritage site today at 3:30. 100 years later this local tragedy has not only found a way to reach into the hearts of those in the local community, but it still remains a bleak historical event of national significance as well.  In an age where workers’ rights are being challenged across the country, with right-to-work legislation weakening the labor movement and workers’ struggling to fight for fair pay and healthcare, the Italian Hall tragedy can serve as a somber reminder that we should not only mourn the dead, but also fight for the living.


Suggested Read: Rebels on the Range

Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miner’s Strike of 1913-1914
Arthur W. Thurner
John H. Forster Press 1984

Given recent events in states like Wisconsin, I thought it appropriate to share some historical perspectives on labor relations in the Copper Country.  Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miner’s Strike of 1913-1914 by Arthur W. Thurner looks at the events of the copper strike, which began in July 1913.  With representation by the Western Federation of Miners, copper mine strikers fought for a shorter working day, improved working conditions, higher wages, and recognition of their union.  Of particular interest to worker safety was the one-man drill (as opposed to the drill that used two workers), which from a company perspective saved on wage hours but from a worker perspective greatly increased the instance of serious and possibly fatal injury.   Rebels on the Range chronicles the events which prompted the strike and discusses the events of the strike itself.  Thurner takes care to discuss those events directly related to the mines and the goals of strikers as well as those events that impacted the community and families, such as the Italian Hall disaster.  As a local of Calumet, Thurner was able to utilize local resources and interview local people to create his account of local labor history.

In addition to recommending this book for those interested in the copper miner’s strike and general labor history I would also like to recommend that you take a look at the journal Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas. If you are unable to subscribe, please take a look at four articles that they recently made available to the public.  The articles listed below will help place current labor struggles into a broader historical context.  I think these articles will be great discussion starters.

Joseph A. McCartin
“Fire the Hell out of Them”: Sanitation Workers’ Struggles and the Normalization of the Striker Replacement Strategy in the 1970s

Nelson Lichtenstein
Despite EFCA’s Limitations, Its Demise Is a Profound Defeat for U.S. Labor

Laura Murphy
An “Indestructible Right”: John Ryan and the Catholic Origins of the U.S. Living Wage Movement, 1906-1938

Keith Gildart
Two Kinds of Reform: Left Leadership in the British National Union of Mineworkers and the United Mineworkers of America, 1982-1990

Currently Reading: Death’s Door

Interior of Italian Hall - Photo Courtesy of MTU Archives/Keweenaw Digital Archive

Over the holidays of 1913 the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the whole state, and the country as a whole heard news of a tragedy that took place in the city of Calumet. On Christmas Eve on the second floor of Italian Hall, a gathering place for locals, mostly striking miners and their families enjoyed a crowded and festive holiday party. At one point, someone cried “Fire” and panic swept over the crowd and people fled down the stairs and for the door. The doors were stuck. Panic swelled. Yet, there was no fire.

In the aftermath of the chaos it was found that six dozen people, many of them children, had been crushed to death in the stampede for the door. The lingering questions of how such a thing could happen and why the doors wouldn’t budge open when people tried to evacuate have intrigued local people and historians for almost a century.

I am currently reading a book that tackles the Italian Hall disaster, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder by Steve Lehto. I hope to have a review in the coming week. In the meantime, please have a listen to Woody Guthrie’s song, 1913 Massacre, which was named after this tragic event.