- 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
It was the one-man drill, a heavy, cumbersome piece of equipment that the underground workers claimed was dangerous. “Even before the one-man drill, we lost maybe a man a week in those mines,” recalls eigbty-five-year-old Bill Neimi, one of the few Calumet residents old enough to remember the tumultuous days of 1913. The son of a Finnish miner, Neimi started in the C&H shafts at the age of seventeen: “It was a risky job, dark and dirty. The air was putrid and thin and you had to be alert all the time. That’s what was so good about the two-man drill. One guy was always watching out for the other. The one-man drill scared the miners. That’s what caused the strike.”
There were other factors. Word had spread to the Upper Peninsula that miners in the Montana copper fields got $4.00 for an eight-and-a-half-hour workday. In Calumet, the workdays were ten and eleven hours, the pay $2.50. This rankled, but the ethnic and social differences among the miners made them resent each other almost as much as they resented the company. “Houghton County … is not a community of self-governing American citizens,” concluded Sen. James E. Martin, a New Jersey Democrat who was on a congressional committee that investigated the Calumet labor unrest. “It is one chiefly of aliens brought thither to serve the monopoly, and ruled from Boston in defiance of law and in despite of democratic institutions.”
The copper country was ripe for organizing, and the force that was able to break through the ethnic differences to unite the miners against the mine operators was the Denver-based Western Federation of Miners. It came to Calumet fresh from success in the West, where it had won the high wages and shortened workday for the copper miners in Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. Organized in 1893, the federation had a violent reputation.
In the first decade of the new century, the federation was the backbone of the Wobblies—the Industrial Workers of the World. Although the two split in 1908, largely because WFM leaders had become disenchanted with the IWWs revolutionary ideas, the mineowners still saw the federation as a Socialist-controlled movement.
That reputation was strengthened by two other highly publicized labor disputes of the era. Both strikes involved textile workers and both were led by the IWW. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, unskilled, largely uneducated immigrant textile workers stunned the labor world by staging a strike against the big mills.
No sooner did the Lawrence strike end—in near-total victory for the workers—than another group of immigrant textile workers organized a walkout against the mills of Paterson, New Jersey. Again the IWW was at the forefront, but this time the strike ended in bloody failure.
Nevertheless, the immigrant miners in the wilds of upper Michigan were inspired by the accounts of the Eastern strikes. And although the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW had parted company, that former affiliation, coupled with the union’s tough image, appealed to the increasingly independent copper miners of Calumet. In February 1913 there were five federation locals and nine thousand card-carrying members in the copper country, and more were joining every day. By the summer, with the institution of the one-man drill, the new union was ready to move. The miners asked for a meeting with the mine-owners, sending along requests for a pay raise to $3.50 a day, a shorter workday, and a return to the two-man drill. But the owners, refusing to recognize the union, would not even agree to a meeting.
On July 23,1913, the miners struck.
“The grass will grow on your streets before I’ll ever give in,” swore James MacNaughton, the $85,000-a-year general manager of C&H. On another occasion, he reportedly vowed that he would teach the miners to eat potato parings.
The strike began on a dark and dreary day. It was midsummer, but a stiff, cold breeze blew off Lake Superior. There were scattered showers. The mood of the miners was as sullen as the weather. There were scores of minor fights and lots of shoving as hundreds of angry men hurled first insults and then stones at the supervisory personnel who crossed their lines to enter the mines.
Much of this initial anger was also the result of the long-simmering ethnic divisions. The supervisors and mine bosses were mostly Cornish, and they looked down at the more recent immigrants, the Finns, Swedes, Austrians, and Italians who did the drilling and hauling. On their part, the newer immigrants thought the Cornish workers were “company stoolies,” and they deeply resented the better treatment given them by the mineowners. That first day, there were three documented injuries. In each case the victim was a Cornish shift boss who was hit by flying rocks. The open defiance shocked the mine bosses. They saw the strike as much more than a labor dispute: it was a rebellion.