We cross the Mighty Mac and enter Michigan’s magnificent Upper Peninsula. Soaring over the five-mile span that connects our state’s two distinct bodies, I begin to search for the right song. The Great White Steed is not only a form of travel; it is a sound machine as well. The pulsating pounding of its two powerful pistons are wonderfully augmented by its four speaker stereo system. I love the combination of music and motion. On my 1979 shovelhead, I had no radio, but there was always a song in my head to go with the puttering and panging of that old school machine. Now, I’m spoiled. I work real hard before each trip to pick out the right song for the right time.
Take a trip with me in 1913, to Calumet, Michigan in the Copper Country. I’ll take you to a place called Italian Hall, and the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
This is God’s Country and Calumet, in the heart of the Keweenaw Peninsula, is a pearl. We visit this town every two or three years and always stop at this park in the center of town. A lone stone archway sits next to an historical marker and inevitably I grab my wife’s hand and I begin to sob.
I’ll take you in a door and up the high stairs, singing and dancing is heard everywhere. I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see and watch the kids dance ’round the big Christmas tree.
The date was December 24th, 1913, Christmas Eve. The copper miners in this town of Calumet had gone on strike against the C & H Mining Company in July of 1913. Fighting for representation by the Western Federation of Miners, the Ladies Auxiliary of the WFM decided to throw a Christmas party for over 500 striking miners and their families at the Italian Hall.
There’s talking and laughing and songs in the air, and the spirit of Christmas is there ev’rywhere. Before you know it, you’re friends with us all, and you’re dancing around and around in the hall.
The Western Federation of Miners first established a local in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the WFM had a large enough membership to effectively strike. By this time, 9,000 miners had joined the union. The work was hazardous and the pay was low. The company didn’t even supply the tools needed for the miners to work. The cost for the tools came out of their meager wages.
You ask about work and you ask about pay. They’ll tell you they make less than a dollar a day. Working their copper claims, risking their lives, so it’s fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.
Strikebreakers, hired by the mining company, were milling around outside the Italian Hall on that Christmas Eve. They were called the Citizen’s Alliance and their strategy throughout the strike was to paint the union leaders as unpatriotic and enemies of the United States. Most of the miners were newly immigrated to the U.S. and many did not speak much English.
A little girl sits down by the Christmas tree lights to play the piano, so you gotta keep quiet to hear all this fun; you would not realize that the copper boss thug men are milling outside.
The tragedy began when someone yelled “Fire!” There was no fire. However, people panicked and rushed for the stairs. The party was being held on the second floor of the building. The stairway was narrow and when the first of the frightened guests reached the doors they could not be opened. The copper boss thugs stuck their heads in the door. One of them yelled and one of them screamed, “There’s a fire!” A lady hollered, “There’s no such a thing; keep on with your party, there’s no such a thing.” Someone, or something, was blocking the exit doors from being opened. More and more frightened guests rushed down the stairway. Most were children on this dreadful, fateful night before Christmas.
A few people rushed and there’s only a few. “It’s just the thugs and the scabs fooling you.” A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down, but the thugs held the door and he could not get out.
The doors of the Italian Hall remained barricaded as the partygoers smothered each other in the ensuing melee. Seventy-three people were killed in a matter of minutes. Fifty-nine of those were children.
And then others followed, about a hundred or more. But most everybody remained on the floor. The gun thugs, they laughed at their murderous joke. And the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.
The town of Calumet has never fully recovered from this tragedy. One resident remembers his grandfather telling about the “endless procession of small white coffins” at the Sunday funeral procession. No one was ever held accountable or charged with any crime concerning this event. The strike did not end until April, 1914.
Such a terrible sight I never did see. We carried our children back up to their tree. The scabs outside still laughed at their spree. And the children that died there was seventy-three.
This lone stone archway is where I stand every time I am in this beautiful hamlet. It is impossible not to shed a tear, or two, or many when standing in this spot. I know this is not the Christmas story you were hoping to read on these pages, but it is one that must be told. I hope you and yours have a blessed holiday season and an inspiring New Year.
The piano played a slow funeral tune, and the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon. The parents, they cried, and the men, they moaned, “See what your greed for money has done?”
Sincerely, and fraternally,
John “Cementhead” Dick (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)
Photo: Stone arch from the Italian Hall, in the park in Calumet. nps.gov