Christmastime in northern Michigan. 1913. Mine workers (over 70% recent immigrants) had been in a contentiousmarked by occasional flare-ups of violence on both sidesstrike since July. Already poor, the strike left families scraping to survive, depending on one another and their union organizers. There was no apparent end in sight. The mine owners refused to negotiate terms and the workers refused to accept the conditions imposed upon them. It made for a bleak holiday season.
Union organizers arranged for a large Christmas party to be held upstairs at the local Italian Hall in Calumet. A tree was furnished and decorated and a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out gifts to the many children. Of course there were bags of candy, but other gifts were more practical, reflecting the needs of the community. Things needed for those cold winter months one suffers through in the upper Midwest. Scarves and mittens to keep little hands and necks and faces warm. A large number were in attendance, enjoying the season as well as they could, trying to keep out the cold and thoughts of the strike.
By the end of the night, 73 of those people would die. Nearly all of them children.
The Copper Strike of 1913-1914
The area in northern Michigan was copper country. Miners had a rough life and, like many in their day, had to suffer low wages, danger, and poor conditions at work. They were represented by the Western Federation of Miners (and had been for a few years) but the companies refused to acknowledge them as representative of the workers. A vote was taken about whether or not to strike if their grievances were not addressed by the owners. About 98% of the union's 9,000 workers agreed and when the letter sent to the owners returned unopened, they walked out. That was July.
The main issues were low pay and long hours (ten to eleven a day, plus a half day on Saturday) and the implementation of the "one-man drill." The last item was a major contention for the workers who feared it would lead to lost jobs (it may have, though it isn't certain). It was also a safety issue. With two men manning a drill, there was less of a chance for there to be accidents and if something did happen there was more of a chance someone could get help. A lone man drilling underground for hours at a time would be more likely to make mistakes, leading to injuries or worse. And there would be no one there if something happened.
The strike began with riots and clashes between strikers, workers trying to cross the picket line, and sheriff's deputies. The National Guard was brought in and the sheriff hired private strikebreakers. Things cooled off, though there were incidents (mostly on the part of the authorities) including deputies and strikebreakers firing into a house and killing one man and wounding three (one of whom was sitting at the dinner table eating; another died later). They were the only company men to be charged during the strike. Beating back marchers with clubs (who, admittedly, sometimes threw stones) and taking shots at them were ignored. So was the incident when a paradeguilty of nothing more than shouting at the deputieswas fired upon. The men emptied their weapons into the crowd, surprisingly only hitting one person: a 14 year old girl, struck in the head by a bullet. The deputies didn't bother to reload, but ran. Amazingly, the girl recovered.
The strike dragged on into the autumn months with the companies refusing to negotiate with any group with a WFM representative involved. This effectively kept arbitration off the table. (Eventually, the mine owners would cut hours and raise wages, though the drill issue was never resolved and the WFM never recognized.) By the end of the year, many men had returned to the mines out of weariness or necessity. Families needed to eat and be clothed. Many families lived in houses leased from the mines. As early as September, many were faced with returning to work or being evicted.
As the holiday season approached, it was announced that the stockholders would be receiving a 400$ dividend. Meanwhile the workers suffered the strike. Some sort of cheer was needed.
24 December 1913
Union organizers planned a big Christmas Eve party to be held on the second floor of the Calumet Italian Hall. Besides the tree and the gifts, carols were sung and music played on a piano. Spirits warmed and family and friends were able to keep out the cold and the uncertainty of the future. At some point during the festivities, someone shouted "Fire!"
Everyone panicked. A crush of humanity poured out of the room, rushing for the exit at the bottom of a narrow staircase. As the crowd, in its mad rush, flowed toward the doors, they began piling up, pressed into the door: a door that only opened inward and the more the guests pushed the harder it was to escape. It became hard to breathe. People began to die.
There was no fire.
Upstairs, people started carrying in the bodies, too many of them small and limp. The bodies were laid on the floor in front of the Christmas tree. When it was over, 73 people had died. The oldest was 66, the youngest was two and a half. Over three-quarters were children under the age of 15. Five were less than five years old.
Donations poured in from people who had previously opposed the strikers. The union bosses told the victims not to accept the charity because it would be conceding to the mining interests. A terrible decision, the tactic earned much resentment and outright anger by many within and without the strike. It was almost the new year and people were weary of the long strike which had no end in sight. Keeping families going was difficult and the tragedy extinguished much of the spirit that had kept them motivated. They were also losing support from other unions around the country.
Shortly after, the union gave up the strike.
Things returned to normal (workwise) for a time, but the era of copper mining in Michigan (once the number two producer in the nation) had begun its long decline. Workers left for elsewhere, some of them joining the early auto industry that was growing in Detroit. In 1997, the last operating copper mine in Michigan closed for good.
Possibly the worst part of the tragedy is that no one has ever been held accountablein fact, it's not even clear who it was. There are a few theories. One is that drunken revelers pulled a horrible prank. Another claimed that someone overheard someone speaking another language and misinterpreted what was said. By far, the most prevalent theory is that it was mining company goons sent to disrupt and panic the strikers and their families. Some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen company men hanging around before the "fire." Unfortunately, this cannot prove much even if it is true. It would hardly be a surprise that mining agents would be keeping an eye on any large gathering of strikers and sympathizers. But it is still the most accepted theory to date and likely will remain so.
In the early 1980s, a man came forward to a reporter with a confession. Years before, he met a man who was dying. That man claimed to have been one of two men who had pulled the drunken prank. The man wouldn't reveal his or his partner's names. They left town shortly after and the partner supposedly later died in a mining accident. But there is no way to confirm or substantiate the story. What actually happened and why will remain a secret confined to the graves of those responsible.
In 1944, folk singer Woody Guthrie retold the story in the song "1913 Massacre." The hall, itself stood for many years, though it fell into disrepair and was slated for demolition in 1984. Groups got together to save and restore the stones that made up the frame of the door. The door that so many died trying to exit. It stands alone in an empty lot.
Sources: "Strike in the Copper Mining District in Michigan" 1914 Department of Labor Report available here: www.hu.mtu.edu/vup/Strike/background3.html
"Copper Mine Strike of 1913-1914" www.hu.mtu.edu/vup/Strike/index.html
"The Italian Hall Disaster, Calumet, Michigan www.genealogia.fi/emi/emi3d31e.htm
"Some recent articles" www.angelfire.com/mi2/1913/19136.html