Copper Mining Strike of 1913
The above telegram is from Michigan National Guard General Perley L. Abbey to Governor Woodbridge Ferris. It's dated October 23, 1913 and reads as follows:
Lawlessness broke loose throughout district today. Northwestern train windows smashed with rocks. 30 men broke into workmen's home at Quincy. Row with deputies at Quincy. Paraders at Calumet armed with clubs. Three fights, 2 deputies badly cut up. 13 strikers arrested. 4 arrests near Ahmeek for shooting up workmen's premises. 2 arrests at Allouez. Picketing throughout entire district.---------------------------
On July 23, 1913, the miners of Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon Counties called a long anticipated strike. The 15,000 striking workers had three main demands: (1) an increase in their wages, (2) an eight hour day and (3) the return of the safer two-man drill (operated by two miners) that had been replaced by a one-man drill. No one could have anticipated the violence that ensued.
Copper mining had made the region prosperous for the previous forty years. By 1913, however, the mines faced stiff competition from newly discovered deposits in Montana, Arizona, and Utah. In an effort to remain affluent, mining companies began emphasizing efficiency, and the miners were introduced to the much more dangerous one-man drill. This pressure for higher production created animosity among the labor force and made them more responsive to union organization.
On the first day of the strike, anyone attempting to cross the picket line was bombarded with rocks and iron pipes. The Houghton County Board of Supervisors granted Sheriff James Cruise permission to hire the New York-based Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency. Wadell-Mahon supplied a "security force." "Waddell men" were known for their intimidation and often violent handling of situations. Local residents saw them as foreign "riffraff from the slums" who would do anything for money. For additional help, Governor Woodbridge Ferris ordered the entire Michigan National Guard (about 2,000 men) to relocate to the area.
The first major confrontation occurred August 14, 1913 and became known as the "Seeberville Affair." Two strikers, John Kalan and John Stimac, walked across the mining company's property. A guard, who had been deputized by local law enforcement, told them to stop. They ignored him. The guard told his supervisor about the incident. The supervisor assembled a group consisting of the guard, another deputized man and some Waddell Men. He told the group to bring him the two strikers, so that he could talk to them. The group went to the boarding house where John Kalan lived. Kalan refused to go with them, and Kalan's roommates helped Kalan back into the house. The deputies and the Waddell men began shooting at the house. Two boarders with no connection to the two strikers were killed. The funeral for the two men brought in between 3,500 and 5,000 mourners and union sympathizers. The photographs on the left and below show the inside and outside of the boarding house. On the photo of the interior, one of the bullet holes can be seen on the door.
Violent outbursts continued throughout the strike, as the telegram above describes. In the three weeks following this telegram, more than 400 people were arrested, and confrontations with the Waddell men continued. Parades led by local icon "Big Annie" grew in popularity as the strikers united behind their martyred comrades.
The last and most devastating act of violence occurred December 24, 1913. In an effort to maintain morale, a large Christmas party was organized for the strikers and their families. Calumet's Italian Hall was the party site. Amongst the celebrating, someone in the crowd yelled "fire." The six hundred attendees panicked and rushed to the stairwell. Seventy-three people, included sixty-two children, suffocated to death in an attempt to escape. Rumors circulated that someone connected to the mining company intentionally yelled "fire" into the crowd, and the debate continues today.
Of their three demands, the strikers earned their eight-hour workday and a three-dollar-a-day wage increase, but the mining company insisted on keeping the one-man-drill. On April 13, 3,104 striking miners voted to return to work. Although the strike was resolved, the tragedies and violence that occurred between July of 1913 and April of 1914 far overshadowed the ending result of the labor dispute.
The Archives of Michigan holds Governor Ferris' official papers from the strike. To learn more, please visit the Archives or call (517) 373-1408.
Michigan Technological University's Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections contains primary material on Michigan's copper mining industry. Click MTU Archives to visit their web site.
Attorney Steve Lehto wrote Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder (Troy, MI: Momentum Books, 2006). The book is an examination of the 1913 copper strike and Italian Hall disaster. It was named a Michigan Notable Book for 2007. Click Death's Door - Catalog Record to retrieve the online catalog record of this book. Click www.Michigan.gov/notablebooks for more information on the Notable Books Program (including lists of notable books for various years.).
Michigan History Magazine has published articles on the Calumet Mine Strike throughout its run. The most recent one was done in the July/August 1999 issue and focused on Big Annie and her efforts in the strike. For more information, click Michigan History Magazine.
Italian Hall, where 72 were killed, has been designated a Michigan Historical Marker. Click Michigan Historical Markers for more information.
Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan home page.
Click Archives Image of the Month to view archived image pages.
Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing, MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-3559 (Select option "3" from the voice menu.)
This page is the Archives Image of the Month page for December 2006.