- Historic Sites
The Calumet Tragedy
When copper-country miners went on strike, the owners brought thugs from the slums of New York to northern Michigan. The struggle led to an event that killed a city.
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
On the surface, there was hardly a more unlikely spot for turn-of-the-century prosperity than the isolated community of Calumet. Located in the wilds of Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, on a windswept finger of hardscrabble land that juts out into the cold waters of Lake Superior, it is a place that annually receives more than fifteen feet of snow, where winter begins at the end of September and seldom lets up until April.
But what briefly made Calumet one of the Midwest’s richest boomtowns was not found on the surface. It lay a mile underground: vast deposits of rich ore made the region the nation’s chief supplier of copper.
And Calumet was a grand place, totally electrified, served by a cheap and efficient streetcar system, civilized by an acoustically perfect opera house and graced with more churches per capita than any other city in America. But that was in the first decade of the century, a golden time when more than eighty thousand people lived in the thousand-square-mile territory at the northwestern end of the Upper Peninsula known then—and now—as the copper country.
The grandeur and the copper have long since vanished. Once the commercial and social hub of the region, Calumet today is almost a ghost town. And while the glut of competition from foreign producers coupled with a gradual playing out of the copper deposits had their role in the area’s demise, Calumet’s decline was too rapid and total to be explained solely by economics.
Calumet choked on anger and hatred, ignited by one of the bitterest labor disputes the nation has ever seen, a struggle that resulted in a catastrophe which, at the time, was compared to the sinking of the Titanic . More than any other factor, it led to the death of Calumet.
The Calumet copper boom began shortly after the Civil War. There were almost a dozen companies in the region, but the leading pro- ducer was the Boston-based Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, which employed more than four thousand men, almost a third of the total work force of all the mining companies. The C&H Michigan operation was the richest metal mine on earth.
Calumet was an ethnically diverse community. In 1900 fully 90 percent of the population was of foreign descent. For fifty years Croatians, Finns, Swedes, Italians, Cornish, Hungarians, Poles, Austrians, and Germans flocked to the area to work the deep ground mines. There were eight daily foreign-language newspapers, and old-timers recall walking down the crowded streets on a Saturday night and never hearing English.
If ever there was a true “company town” in America, Calumet was it: “benevolent feudalism” is how a U.S. Labor Department official described conditions in the copper country in 1914. C&H owned all the land. It leased houses to its employees for six dollars a month and provided free Lake Superior water; it rented out the property for stores, churches, and schools. None of the land was ever sold. C&H made clear it was the company’s land and if the company needed to use it for mining, any previous use was rescinded.
Still, C&H was genuinely paternalistic. It built bathhouses, parks, a library, a hospital. The town’s ornate, three-story opera house opened in 1900 and became one of the nation’s most renowned. Calumet was on the big-time entertainment circuit, right up there with New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The leading performers of the day played the city, people like John Philip Sousa, Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt. Telephones, still a rarity in much of the country, were commonplace in Calumet. The streets were paved. Trains and streetcars ran around the clock. When times were good to the company, the company was good to Calumet. And through the turn of the century, times had been very good for C&H. More than $150 million in dividends went to the stockholders back East.
The Calumet and Hecla Company owned the richest metal mine on earth.
But nothing lasts forever. The first thing to go was the copper. By 1900 the average mine depth was four thousand feet, compared with just half that three decades earlier. And the copper was not as pure: in 1874, the company’s best year, C&H refined almost ninety-seven pounds of metal out of every ton of ore; in 1900 the figure had dropped to just over fifty-three pounds. The company was having to dig deeper to get less.
First came the efficiency experts who followed the workers around, charting their every move, and whose appearance was quickly followed by demands for more productivity. And then came the dreaded “widow maker.”