CALUMET, Mich. (WJMN) — Twelve hours a day, six days a week. Dark, dangerous, even deadly conditions. This was just a day in the life of a copper miner in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Then came the introduction of the one-man drill, which eliminated the need for half of the mining workforce and also created even more dangerous working conditions for solo workers. In July of 1913, Copper Country miners organized under the Western Federation of Miners and went on strike.
“What these men were striking for is what men usually are striking for,” says Tom Wright a Guide with the Quincy Mine Hoist Association, “They’re striking for dignity and respect. They’re striking to have a voice, to be heard, to have their concerns brought to management and their employers.”
The violence of the strikes became so immense that the National Guard was called in to help keep the peace. But on Christmas Eve of 1913, a party was being held for the striking miners and their families at the Italian Hall in Calumet. Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the holidays. While it has never been proven what caused it, witnesses from the night said that an unidentified man yelled “Fire!”, causing a panic. Hundreds of party-goers created a stampede to exit the building down a narrow flight of stairs. 73 people, mostly women and young children, were crushed to death.
The man who supposedly caused the stampede was never identified. Some from the night say he was wearing a ‘Citizen’s Alliance’ pin. The Citizen’s Alliance was an anti-union group that opposed the miners’ strike. This was never substantiated.
A memorial now sits a couple of blocks from the original Italian Hall building. The memorial includes the original archway from the hall as well as the names of the victims.
“The Italian Hall Memorial has a special significance for our community. It is a reminder of the cost in travail and sorrow born by these people,” says Wright.
The strike came to an end in April of 1914, less than a year after it’s start. Some miners moved out of the Copper Country to find work elsewhere, some returned to work in the copper mines. Following the end of the strike, mining companies eventually introduced an 8-hour work day and a wage increase for miners and trammers.
The Copper Country mines unionized years later, beginning in 1939. Eventually, all of the Copper Country mines closed but the events of the infamous Copper Strike left behind a history that will not soon be forgotten.
“Labor Day has always had a special significance to this region. Even today, 106 years later, we are still talking about that strike, still trying to understand all of the nuances and what happened here,” says Wright.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a labor activist that helped fight for miners’ rights. She enlisted more than 300,000 men to join the United Mine Workers Union. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” is her famous quote. Jones has been inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame this year.
For more information on the Copper Strikes of 1913-1914, click here.