Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve, 1913: The Upper Peninsula's Italian Hall disaster

Until I visited Michigan's Upper Peninsula this summer, I hadn't heard of the Italian Hall disaster of Christmas Eve, 1913.

In July of that year, newly unionized miners in Copper Country on the Keweenaw Peninsula called a strike. They had a number of issues with the various mining companies, the largest of which was Calumet & Hecla. Their foremost grievance was the insistence of management for the use of a one-man drill instead of a two-man unit. Of course that meant fewer workers, but there is more to it than that. Mining in the Upper Peninsula was often a family affair, and the duos using drills were often family members--or part of the same ethnic group.

As for the mining companies, they faced serious cost concerns because of competition from cheaper-to-operate mines in Arizona and Montana.

The Western Federation of Miners, which represented the miners of Copper Country, held a Christmas Party at the Italian Hall in Calumet (then known as Red Jacket). But Christmas cheer turned into a nightmare. Over 500 people packed a second story auditorium. Someone shouted "Fire," there were no flames--but plenty of panic. In a situation somewhat similar to the more recent E2 nightclub disaster in Chicago, people were trapped on the stairway--73 people, most of them children between the ages of 6 and 10, died. The victims either suffocated or were trampled to death.

No one knows who shouted "Fire," but blame quickly was placed on management and an anti-union group called the Citizens Alliance. In his song "1913 Massacre," Woody Guthrie blamed a "copper boss thug" and claimed the thugs blocked the exit door. That didn't happen.

By April, the strikers gave up--the union was busted.

The Italian Hall stood abandoned for years and was demolished in 1984. All that is left is the arch from that unhappy structure.

1913--not a merry Christmas in Copper Country.

Related posts:

Upper Peninsula Upventure: The Finale
Keweenaw National Historical Park, Calumet
Calumet, Michigan's St. John the Baptist Church
Calumet, Michigan's St. Paul the Apostle Church
Calumet, Michigan's St. Anne's Church
A brief history of copper mining

1 comment:


John--Thanks for the history lesson. You always seem to find historical items that are off the radar. You do good work.

Merry Christmas to you, your family and to all your readers.