Thursday, August 25, 2016
Tragedy in the U.P.
(I can’t believe that I didn’t thrive on history during high school, sucking it up like a sponge. I feel I have a lot of lost time to make up for. And am thankful for the internet.)
“One little girl who was jammed in the hallway in a dying condition begged one of her rescuers to save her. She grasped his hand, kissed it, then her little head dropped upon her breast and she was dead,”
Miner’s Bulletin, December 28, 1913
In the late 1800s the Copper Boom in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula would rival the California Gold Rush. Mines popped up (or dug down) throughout the woods. Immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Finland and other countries flocked to the area at the prospect of a steady job. Unfortunately it didn’t take the mine owners long to clamp down on this prosperity, looking for ways to cut workers while increasing their workload. In 1906, the Western Federation of Miners began organizing the miners of the Keweenaw, seeking to increase workers’ pay, shorten their work day, eliminate child labor and assure job security. Safety was also a huge concern, as an average of one miner died per week during this time.
On July 23, 1913, the miners voted to strike. Management at the Calumet & Hecla mine would not negotiate, agreeing only to an eight hour work day. As the strike dragged on, union funds ran out and the striking workers were left penniless. Many moved away, searching for work in industrial cities such as Chicago or Detroit.
To assure that the children of Red Jacket would have a Christmas, the WFM’s Women’s Auxiliary hosted a Christmas Eve party at the Italian Hall. Hundreds of fathers and mothers brought their sons and daughters to the second floor ballroom. Just as the children were being given their Christmas presents, the only ones they would receive that year, someone shouted, “Fire!”
The panicked crowd raced for the single staircase and only exit out of the building. When the doors at the bottom of the stairs couldn’t be opened, the force of the humanity from above crushed those underneath. An unimaginable 73 were killed, 60 of them children.
There was no fire.
A federal investigation failed to discover if the doors to the outside were locked or blocked by something or even if they opened in or out. The inquiry also never found out who had shouted “fire” in the first place, though many believe to this day that it was someone hired by mine management.
In April 1914, the strike came to an end, the union defeated. It wouldn’t be long, though, before the copper era would come to a close, and not only the mines but many of the towns of Copper Country would go silent.
(A lot of my information was also taken from these two sites: http://www.1913strike.mtu.edu/index.html and from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper_Country_strike_of_1913%E2%80%9314)