At the turn of the century, the most prosperous copper mines in the world were in the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Many of these were owned by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company of Chicago (C&H), and from 1871 through 1880, the mines produced more than half of the United States’ copper.
At the peak of production, the mines employed approximately 15,000 miners. Working conditions were poor, at best, and deadly, at worst. Due to the long hours, dangerous condition, and low pay, the Western Federation of Miners Union (W.F.M.) established a local in the area in the year 1908. Though because miners were under the constant threat of C&H thugs, it wasn't until 1913 that the W.F.M. had a large enough membership to effectively strike.
During the strike of 1913, many of the miners and their families lived in the Calumet/Red Jacket area. Times were tough. The striking workers didn’t receive benefits during the strike and the people’s finances suffered along with the optimism of the workers.
Many knew Christmas would be lean that year and wanted something to raise the holiday spirits of the town folks. A Christmas party, sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners, was planned. The ladies meant for the gathering to boost the morale of the striking workers, and the festivities were more than just a time of fellowship, but also an attempt to bring the people together and encourage one-another to fight the good fight.
On Christmas Eve, 1913, on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet Michigan, over four-hundred striking workers and their families gathered together. Wives huddled in groups at the food and beverage table trading recipes with one another and bragging on children. Husbands gathered in small groups and spoke of the hard times of the past and the better times to come. Children ran from one side of the hall to the other, chasing each other until they could no longer catch their breath or a parent waggled a finger in their direction as a sign to slow down. The mood remained light and festive and the people bonded in camaraderie.
Until someone shouted, “fire!”.
Suddenly, horror ensued. Poorly-marked fire escapes on one side of the building and precarious, emergency-ladders located at the back of the building, which could be only be reached by climbing through the windows, left mothers and fathers frantic to get their children to safety as quickly as possible.
So, everyone—all four-hundred terrified people—panicked and ran for the narrow staircase leading outside. Little did they know the exterior doors wouldn’t open. The party goers packed tighter and tighter into the stairwell, crushing those who were first to enter.
Though highly debated, it’s been reported that the doors opened inward, but other reliable reports and supporting photos suggest that the exterior doors opened outward and were bolted from the outside by the ruffians attempting to get workers back in the mines.
The true heartbreak of the false alarm is the deaths of 73 people. This number includes 59 children who tragically lost their lives on Christmas Eve, 1913.
In the first of several investigations into the disaster, the coroner’s inquest forced witnesses who did not speak English to answer their questions in English without an interpreter. After only three days, the coroner issued a ruling that stated no cause of death.
Then in early 1914, the United States’ House of Representatives arrived in Copper Country to probe the strike and the Italian Hall disaster. This time, twenty witnesses testified with the proper interpreters and under oath.
Eight of the twenty witnesses swore that the man who cried "fire" wore a “Citizens' Alliance” (a mine owner’s group) button on his coat.
No one was ever prosecuted nor were any indictments made. The Italian Hall was demolished in 1984. Today, only the archway to the old hall remains.
This horrific story seems to be founded on greed and power, and those who perished should never be forgotten.
Multi award-winning author, Michele K. Morris’s love for historical fiction began when she first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. She grew up riding horses and spending her free time in the woods of mid-Michigan. Married to her high school sweetheart, they are living happily-ever-after with their six children, three in-loves, and ten grandchildren in Florida, the sunshine state. Michele loves to hear from readers on Facebook, Twitter, and here through the group blog, Heroes, Heroines, and History at HHHistory.com. Michele is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.