The holiday story that I am about to tell you is not an uplifting one. In fact, it is a very sad one. In a lot of ways, this story is eerily like one of my first podcasts detailing the Shiloh Church Disaster.
Our story takes place on December 24th, 1913 – Christmas Eve – in the village of Calumet on Michigan’s upper peninsula. At the time Calumet was a mining town was in the heart of Copper Country. Copper was in great demand at the time due to the sudden need for metal for the electrification of America.
Calumet consisted of two groups of people – those that spoke English and those that did not. You can probably guess which group ran the town and which group worked in the mines.
But things were not going well. The miners worked ten hours per day in awful, downright dangerous conditions for truly little pay. To make things worse, management introduced a labor-saving one-man drill, instead of the standard two-man drill. Miners saw this as both a safety issue and as a potential loss of workers. Basically, they were going to be out of a job.
Tired of long days for little reward, they decided to strike. The miners walked off the job in July 1913 and things turned ugly quickly. There were numerous altercations between labor and management. Outside strikebreakers were brought in from Chicago and New York to beat up strikers, break up picket lines, disrupt parades, and do just about anything to wear down the miners. With each passing day, the divide between the two sides seemed to grow wider.
Five months into the strike, Christmas was quickly approaching. And it was clearly not going to be a good one for the miners. While our story centers on Calumet, the strike was widespread across Michigan copper country. More than 16,000 families with an estimated 30,000 children were affected by this great labor war.
The Women’s Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners decided to have a holiday celebration for the kids on Christmas Eve. It was held in the second-floor auditorium of Calumet’s 5-year-old Italian Hall.
The event was well attended. Estimates between 300 and 700 people were reported in attendance. Judging by photos of the hall, it was probably closer to the lower number. Everything started off well. A Christmas tree was beautifully decorated and placed upon the stage. Songs were sung and skits performed. Then Santa walked out on the stage and the gift-giving began. While today’s kids would expect a Wii or an iPod, these kids were happy to receive gifts of candy, clothing, shoes, and mittens.
Sadly, many would never get to enjoy them. While there were many versions of what happened, it is generally agreed that around 4 PM someone in the crowd screamed “Fire”. All pandemonium broke loose. Mothers and the few dads present grabbed their kids and ran for safety. But there was only one exit out, which required descending a steep flight of stairs down to street level. They were unable to do so. The bodies piled up at the bottom of the staircase and in the end at least 73 people were killed, which included between 53 and 59 children. The exact total has been argued about ever since, mainly because some victims were immediately removed by family members before ever being counted.
The Calumet town hall was set up as a temporary morgue. Both additional caskets and hearses needed to be brought in from other towns. Several days later there was a large funeral procession to the cemetery for 59 of the victims, which included 39 small, white coffins. Many of them were buried in mass graves. Incredibly sad.
In the aftermath, a couple of investigations left many questions unanswered. How did it start? Did someone really yell fire? How many people were actually there? How many were killed? What caused all the bodies to pile up? The reality is that we will never know, but I will attempt to quickly provide you with some widely accepted theories and suggestions.
First, how did this all start? Dozens of witnesses testified that a cry of fire was made in English by a man standing near the door to the hall. Some were able to provide good descriptions of him, including the fact that he was wearing a pro-mining company badge. Could he have been a company goon sent in to disrupt the party?
Another testified that it was a couple of drunken men that screamed that one word that produced such disastrous results.
Yet, still one other claimed that there really was a fire. A woman said that she was sitting next to a man whose son accidentally set his hair on fire.
One of the main problems in pinning down exactly what happened was the language barrier. Most of the miners were from Croatia, Italy, Sweden, and Finland and spoke little or no English. During the first inquiry, many of the people placed on the stand were not provided translators, so their testimonies were dismissed as pure gibberish that no one could understand.
A house subcommittee later held a hearing on the matter and translators were provided. Despite the testimony, it was never determined who blurted out the word fire.
Then there is the question of how many people were in the hall at the time. Estimates range from between 300 and 700 people. Here is where my opinion comes in. There are several photos of the interior of the auditorium taken shortly after the incident that are readily available on the web. I simply counted the number of folding chairs, most of which were still fairly well lined up toward the front of the room and came up with a number of about 160 chairs. Figuring maybe the same amount of people standing up in the back, I figure there were possibly 300 to 350 people in the room. Maybe it was more, but 700 seems too high to me. If you are bored, you can check it out yourself.
Then there is the question of why the bodies piled up at the bottom of the stairs. The stairs were clearly very steep and that probably caused people to trip and fall. But many have claimed the doors at the street level opened inward and could not be opened by the crowd of people in front of them. It has recently been claimed that this was a bunch of bunk, so I simply looked at more pictures. One of them shows a set of double doors – one opening inward and the other outward. It is probably safe to assume that the doors were closed during the cold Michigan winter. Again, do a quick search and decide for yourself. Others don’t agree with my observations, so you may not either.
The strike ended on April 12, 1914, after nine months. The company agreed to an 8-hour workday and for the establishment of a grievance system. But it did little. There was a mass exodus of miners from Calumet, with many of them finding better work in the Detroit auto industry.
The Italian Hall eventually fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1984. If you visit the site today, you will find a grassy park with the original sandstone arch from the hall’s doorway standing as a monument to those that lost their lives.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.