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July 10, 2013

100 years since copper strike, U.P. town copes with past

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

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100 years since copper strike, U.P. town copes with past
Steve Lehto, author and attorney from Birmingham, stands in the old entryway of the Italian Hall in Calumet June 28. On Christmas Eve of 1913, 73 adults and children died in the hall after an unknown man entered it and yelled, “Fire,” causing a stampede.
 

CALUMET, MICH. —  A sandstone arch. Two brick columns. A damaged, 1908 cornerstone. Those are the only standing remnants of this town’s Italian Hall. They act as a memorial in a village and a region that tried to forget that 73 people, most of them children, suddenly died here almost 100 years ago.

They’re a reminder of the tumultuous time in the Keweenaw Peninsula that pitted the Copper Country miners against the mines’ owners. Altogether, almost 20,000 workers went on strike in July 1913. Less than a year later, they returned to work hungry, broke, defeated and with dozens of their children dead.

Sometime after, the story of that Christmas Eve night changed. This town became convinced that the man who ran up the flight of stairs to the hall’s second floor and yelled “fire” was only a prankster. The doors, built incorrectly to open inward, were to blame for the deaths of those trampled.

Even the Michigan Historical Marker had that error engraved on the sign posted where the hall stood until its demolition in 1984.

That was until Steve Lehto, a Birmingham resident whose Finnish lineage traces back to the Keweenaw, discovered a photo taken the day after the incident that revealed the doors opened outward.

Subsequently, he found more evidence, and Lehto came to the conclusion that murder — not a practical joke gone wrong — had taken place. In 2006, the first edition of his book “Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder” was published.

With his trunk filled with cases of books, he toured the state defending his claim. Yet, here in Copper Country, his discovery was often met with resistance. He recalled one lecture he gave in the county where an elderly woman walked up to him, defiant that the doors opened inward.

He pointed at the enlarged photograph showing the opposite, and the woman screamed and fled the room.

“She literally ran away like she was a vampire and I had just pulled a cross on her,” he said.

But people from Calumet say things are changing. A past that was never discussed, they are now endorsing. The village is attempting to save, instead of simply razing, its old buildings. And as far as the direction the hall’s doors opened, people are starting to soften on that front, too.

“What difference does it make?” said Sue Dana, Calumet’s comptroller. She, like many, believed the doors opened inward but has recently changed her mind.

“Seventy three people died. It doesn’t make any difference if they opened in or out.”

The strike

In 1913, there were 400 copper mines operating in the peninsula, but the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company was, as Houghton County Commissioner Tom Tikkanen described, “the OPEC of copper mining.” The Boston-based company was harvesting more than 50 percent of the copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula at the time the strike began in July. The growing workforce — requesting among many things safer work conditions and eight-hour workdays — demanded that management recognize its union. By Christmas Eve, the labor dispute had stalled. Lehto said the management was looking for something to break the stalemate.

Striking families were struggling financially. Morale was low. For their children, the women’s auxiliary of the union hosted a Christmas Eve recital on the upper floor of the Italian Hall. Lehto said that nearly 700 adults and children attended.

That afternoon, someone ran into the hall and yelled, “Fire.” People rushed for the stairs, trampling each other. When firefighters opened the doors, the stairway was so jammed with bodies that they couldn’t pull anybody free. They entered the building via a fire escape to the second floor.

Lehto uncovered records of witnesses saying the man responsible was wearing a button bearing the words “Citizens’ Alliance” — a pro-management business group. Despite that lead, no arrest was ever made.

The strike ended four months later. Owners demanded that returning workers rip up their union cards.

Coping

Lehto has no definitive reason for why the story about the doors changed, but he has a theory.

“People want to blame the disaster on a very simple answer, and especially one that doesn’t blame anybody,” he said. “So then it’s the fault of the doors and not the fault of a real person.”

Not only did the story of the doors change, but many of Calumet’s current residents were never told of the incident while growing up.

Dana said that when she was a Girl Scout, to attend functions on the second floor she walked the very stairs where the bodies had lain. “And I had never heard that the disaster had occurred there,” she said.

Joanne Thomas, who has lived in Calumet since the 1970s, said it was part of an attempt to whitewash the town’s politically left history.

Thomas created an exhibit in the Coppertown USA Mining Museum honoring Anna Clemenc, who led several pro-labor marches throughout the city during the strike. Thomas became interested in the woman after discovering attempts from people in town to ruin Clemenc’s reputation.

“There was really a movement to discredit her,” Thomas said.

To Dana, the town’s silence on the disaster and the copper strike was simply its way of coping.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” she said. “But you don’t have to forget that it happened. You can still honor those people.”

Tikkanen compared the strike to an ugly divorce where the children feel they are to blame for it and, therefore, never discuss it.

“Our benefactor, our father, was Calumet and Hecla, and one day he just pulled up and left and never came back,” he said.

‘Sisu’

By 1970, most of the mines had closed and residents had fled the once vibrant communities for jobs in cities like Detroit. Houghton County had a population of 88,000 residents during the 1910 census. Today, it has 36,000. At its peak, 6,000 lived in Calumet Village. Today, slightly more than 700 live in Calumet. Each year, city officials say it gets fiscally tougher to keep Calumet running.

Yet, the city lives on, promoting its past and its future.

Dana said the movement to have the downtown named a historical park began in 1986 — a push that would have likely saved the then-freshly demolished Italian Hall.

“People placed more value on the buildings and the surroundings when they started thinking about it that way,” she said.

Today, it’s an uphill fight for Main Street Calumet to preserve the existing buildings and seek out new businesses to fill its downtown.

“We’ve saved many, many buildings, but it’s a real battle,” Tikkanen said.

Young entrepreneurs are moving from other states and large cities to the area, seeking the quiet and ease that the Keweenaw Peninsula offers. Jacob Tenharmsel and Ashley Kronshage, who both lived in Colorado, started North Harvest CSA Farm this year to deliver fresh produce to Calumet stores. Nate Shuttleworth and Valerie Baciak, newlyweds in their 30s, opened a coffee-roasting company this month, Keweenaw Coffee Works, in downtown Calumet.

“Sisu,” a Finnish word meaning perseverance, was used 100 years ago as a motto for the strikers. Today, the word still resonates in Calumet.

“It’s the ability to maintain when everything is going downhill,” Tikkanen said, wearing a “Sisu is our renewable resource” sticker. “This town is going to do just fine.”

As for the historical marker, Lehto won his lobbying effort. It was replaced earlier this summer with a fresh one, making no mention of the doors opening the wrong way.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robert Guttersohn at rguttersohn@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5006.