Copper miners’ lives 100 years ago results in bitter labor strike and Christmas Eve tragedy

CALUMET – A hundred years ago marked a tumultuous time in Michigan’s Copper Country. Copper miners were fed up with dangerous working conditions, long hours and low pay, so they joined the Western Federation of Miners and went out on strike in July of 1913. To make matters worse, on Christmas Eve, five months into the strike, an unthinkable tragedy occurred that forever changed the Copper Country. How did Houghton and Keweenaw counties go from mines filled with hard-working men to daily picketing, confrontations, accidents, and even death?

“Between 1890 and 1910 was the copper boom,” explained the late John “Cousin Jack” Foster in a 1992 interview. Foster was a resident of Calumet and a Copper Country historian when he died in 2003. “On Mine Street (in Calumet) where copper was discovered there were 18 shafts – every corner, every block, a shaft. Everything was lit up. It was beautiful.”

In the early Twentieth Century, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was well known for its copper mining industry (the copper rush had actually begun during the 1840’s). Miners were highly skilled workers and among the working class elite. Company paternalism had a strong influence and encouraged a good standard of living as they built houses, schools, hospitals, libraries and bath houses. But the paternalistic perks couldn’t erase the downside of working underground. It was a harsh and dangerous way to earn a living.

In 1913, a copper miner worked about 10 or 11 hours a day for $2.50 and worked six days per week. They paid for their own supplies to work underground, including mining jackets, boots, gloves and a mining cap. Each cap had a carbide lamp attached to provide at least a little bit of illumination in the dark underworld. They would pour carbide into a lower container with water into the upper chamber. As the water trickled downward, the combination created a gas that seeped out in the middle of the shield and became ignited when the flint was struck.

Copper miners were ethnically diverse, emigrating from Cornwall, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Finland and Croatia, among other countries. To start their day, workers would enter a shafthouse and climb aboard a man-car. The transport usually held 10 rows of benches with room for 30 men. After the bell cord was pulled, they were lowered into the shaft. The men had to keep their heads down and arms at their sides. They would feel a small bump at first, then listen to the clickety-clack of the wheels over the rails. Once they reached their work destination, they walked along the drift (the mine floor) to their assignment and brought along drills, explosives, ladders, ropes and other tools.

Miners faced constant uncertainties.

“Rock falling from the hanging wall was the most prevalent danger for all underground workers,” said Larry Lankton, Professor Emeritus at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. Because there were no electric lights at their work site, and they only had the carbide lamp, they could easily trip and fall over rocks and scattered tools and equipment. An automatic danger was working with explosives, and even the most experienced miner could be maimed or killed when he checked on a charge that didn’t explode when it was supposed to (called a sleeper).

The invention of the one-man drill only made things worse. “They had this big, heavy machine that was made for two men,” explained Foster. “And they thought one man should handle it.” Other dangers included mine ladders in poor repair and men falling to their death from a shaft or stope. According to Larry Lankton’s book, “Cradle to Grave,” an underground worker had a 1 in 200 chance of getting killed and a 1 in 3 chance of being injured seriously enough to lose time from work. And this was before paid sick days and life insurance!

Although it might be easy to paint mine managers and officers as heartless in the early twentieth century, some actually did interact well with their employees and listened to their suggestions as to which supplies to purchase in order to keep morale high. For example, if workers didn’t like a new brand of blasting powder, they would inform their boss so a change could be made.

“I think the mine managers had a general appreciation for humanity in the abstract, but did not equate that to the people that toiled in the mines,” explained Gary Kaunonen, a doctoral candidate and instructor at Michigan Technological University. He is also the author of Community in Conflict: A Working-class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike and Italian Hall Tragedy that will be published this spring. “Mine managers thought of workers as their men, and they could do for the most part what they wanted with those men. Hire and fire at will, raise and lower wages, and put as much money into safety in mines as they wanted.”

The competition to make a profit in the copper mining industry was stiff. Michigan operators had to dig lower underground to retrieve copper, which raised production costs. “The copper veins began pinching out while haulage and production costs underground rose,” said Kaunonen. “The younger mines in Montana and Bisbee were yielding more copper in less expense to mine the metal.” Montana was clearly winning a larger share of profits. Their miners were paid $3 per day and only worked an eight hour shift (compared to Michigan’s $2.50 per day for 10 hours). The Copper Country had their work cut out for them to keep their workers happy while still making enough profit to pay dividends to their stockholders. Unfortunately, when the one-man drill was introduced, workers became even more discontented.

In the early years of the copper rush, miners were used to working in teams and belonging to the middle class because they were essentially contract workers, paid for the copper they brought up.

By 1913, that all changed. Miners were now being paid for their time instead of their productivity, which lowered their paycheck. Additionally, they were being forced to work with a one-man drill instead of working with another buddy. Not only was the one-man drill extremely heavy – it weighed 150 pounds – each miner had to transport it on his own and was responsible for lifting it up and down on the post. Since the men now had to work alone, there was literally nobody to turn to if they had trouble.

“They thought more of a horse or a mule in those days than they did a man,” explained Foster. “We had a good number of men killed in the mine years ago.”

On the other hand, the one-man drill increased productivity because they drilled faster.

“It was a win/win situation for mine management while it was a loss for miners,” said Kaunonen. “Almost half the number of skilled miners would have been out of a job with the implementation of the one-man drill.”

Although company owners had found an effective solution to making the mines profitable by cutting labor costs, the miners were very unhappy about the situation and tried to refuse the drill and go back to working in teams. Miners felt that companies, in their efficiency drive, were demanding far too much work of them.

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) arrived in the Copper Country in the late 1800’s with the purpose of assisting mining workers to gain leverage at their companies. Although membership was minimal, it swelled to 7000 in 1913. This was mainly due to the controversy of the one-man drill. The WFM wanted to delay a strike in order to recruit more members, but the workers refused. They forced the district board to meet in late June. Despite poor planning, the WFM called a strike on July 23. They wanted union recognition, an eight-hour work day, a minimum of $3 per day for all underground workers and a return to the two-man drill.

The strike was anything but peaceful. Michigan’s Governor Ferris dispatched National Guard troops to the Copper Country and wanted mine owners to quickly resolve the labor dispute. Unfortunately, the managers rejected the governor’s offer of arbitration. Instead, they insisted the remaining men who wanted to work be allowed to do so. In addition, they demanded that any striker wanting to return to their job to discontinue their WFM membership. Strikers participated in parades, picketing and rallies and their wives became strong assets as they joined their husbands in the fight.

Some scholars believe the strike was lost almost from the very start, even though it lasted nine months. The Western Federation only had $23,000 in its treasury, but was trying to fight companies that had cash reserves of a million dollars. Kaunonen, however, believes strikers made an impact.

“Mining companies brought in over 900 scabs into the Keweenaw,” he explained. “There were well over 400 arrests during the strike and none of these numbers showed any sign of slowing until events after Italian Hall.”

In any case, support for the labor strike eroded quickly. Men couldn’t afford not to bring home a paycheck and the WFM was unprepared to financially assist them. Some of the companies re-opened by mid-August, but management was in for a surprise when they learned the WFM had started receiving financial assistance from unions across the country to help the strikers. By the end of summer, WFM stepped up its efforts to win the strike. There was mass picketing to prevent men from returning to work. Daily confrontations between workers, deputies and National Guardsmen became routine.

The Citizens Alliance, a group formed in November, dedicated to getting rid of the union, assembled a rally at the Calumet Armory and called for the sheriff to press for absolute enforcement of the law. The group consisted of business men dedicated to fighting the WFM.

“The formation of the Alliance as a vigilante group was proof that strikers had a chance, at the very least, of frustrating mining companies for some time,” said Kaunonen. If Alliance members even heard rumors that trouble might be brewing with strikers, they would go on the offensive, even if the rumors were unfounded.

On Christmas Eve, a party was held at Italian Hall for strikers and their families. Children and parents arrived by the afternoon and union cards were supposed to be checked before they were permitted to enter the upstairs auditorium.

Suddenly, at about 4:30 p.m, someone yelled fire and a crowd bolted downstairs, toward the exit. Someone tripped and fell, causing a chain reaction. Dozens of people were trampled into a tangled mess. Rescuers had to pull the bodies one by one from the top of the stairs and were carried to a temporary morgue set up in the village hall. There was no fire in the hall, but tragically, over 70 people died at the stairwell, most of them children. Strikers blamed the Citizens Alliance for causing the accident, although there is no proof of this.

The union refused to accept financial assistance from the mine owners and even charged the Citizens Alliance with murder. Two days later a group of men shot Charles Moyer (president of WFM) in the back and put him on a train to Chicago. WFM leaders knew the strike was hopeless, so they decreased benefits to strikers. The strike finally ended on April 12.

“WFM never had a chance of winning the strike, in my opinion,” explained Lankton. “Companies (were) too entrenched, and had far more money than the union.” Except for gaining the eight-hour work day, the strike was almost completely lost. “I don’t see that (strikers) gained anything else,” said Lankton. “They got the eight-hour day because the companies knew that that change was coming due to the Progressive Era reforms then in vogue, so they went to an eight-hour day a bit early, during the strike, to gain favorable publicity.”

The Copper Country labor strike, combined with the heartbreaking tragedy at Italian Hall, presents an interesting time in the history of the Upper Peninsula. It is wise to remember the events of a century ago, partly from a historical perspective, but mostly out of gratitude that working conditions have progressively improved for the vast majority of Americans.

Donna Searight Simons is a freelance writer. She is the author of the historical novel, “Copper Empire,” that was released this past spring. The book is based on the copper mining strike and Italian Hall tragedy of 100 years ago.