Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The copper strike of 1913

A hundred years ago this week copper miners in the Keweenaw Peninsula went on strike, seeking more money, an eight hour day and the end of the one man drill, which they considered dangerous. 
The state eventually ordered the National Guard in to keep peace, as 15,000 workers went on strike. The mine owners hired a detective agency to provide private security. But trouble came anyway.
Calumet was at the center of the troubles, and it looks like its been sealed in time capsule since 1913, with many fine 19th century buildings lining the downtown. 
My favorite stop to pay tribute to the miners is Shute's Bar, photo at left, which dates to 1890. It has recently been cleaned and re-opened after a several year hiatus.
When I go inside, I can imagine tough miners, many of whom didn't speak much English, standing at the bar, nursing a beer, if they could afford it, and talking about the strike. 
Old pictures of the miners show them wearing suits and carrying picket signs. The world was much more formal then. There were also some miners who were opposed to the strike backed by the Western Federation of Miners. The union brought in Mother Jones, a radical labor activist of the time. 
The first  violence came on Aug. 14, 1913 when two strikers trespassed on mine company property. Local deputies and men from the Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency were dispatched to fetch the miners, but when confronted in a boarding house, one refused to go, and the security officers started shooting. Two men with no connection to the strikers were killed.
The violence continued, but the most tragic event was to come. On Christmas Eve hundreds of miners and their wives and children were gathered at the Calumet Italian Hall for a party. Some one in the crowded yelled "fire" and the crowd ran for the door. In the chaos, 73 people were trampled, most found dead near the door. 
As with most labor disputes, the mining companies blamed the union and the union blamed the companies. But the truth was that nobody seemed to know who yelled "fire", and it has become an enduring mystery in the Keweenaw. 
The strike eventually ended in April 1914, with the miners winning shorter work days and pay hikes, but no reprieves from the one-man drill. The union wasn't recognized by the company.
After the strike, many of the miners lost their taste for working under ground, and followed the lure of auto jobs in Detroit where Henry Ford was paying $5 a day. 
Although the Italian Hall has been demolished, there are still plenty of historic buildings and sites in the copper country, many of which are in the Keweenaw National Historic Park run by the National Park Service. For more information, go to
For further reading, pick up a copy of Michigan author Joe Heywood's "Red Jacket" which uses the strike as a back ground for one of his woods cop mysteries. I won't spoil the ending, but he has a different take on who yelled "fire."
For many years there was a controversy over whether the doors of the Italian Hall opened outward or inward, and there was a theory that the door was jammed shut by men from the detective agency. 
This is explored in a non-fiction book, "Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder," by Steve Lehto, an attorney. 

                                                            Photo of the mine headquarters in Calumet. 

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