- 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
At the bottom of the stairway the first rescuers found bodies piled four and five feet high, wedged together so tightly that it was impossible to untangle them from the street entrance. Instead, the firemen and rescue workers had to use ladders to get to the second floor and then begin removing victims from the top downward.
“The only way you could breathe in that hallway was to push yourself off the wall with all your might and then quickly suck in a breath of air before the force of the other bodies pushed your face back against the wall,” recalled Walter Lahti in a 1980 interview shortly before his death. Lahti was thirteen when he was caught in the stairwell crush. “I made it because I had strong lungs. I was a good swimmer. And 1 was about three-quarters of the way up the stairs. If I had been any closer to the door, I would have died with the others.”
In a nursing home in nearby Houghton, seventy-eight-year-old Julia Harris still remembers that Christmas Eve, although she was just six years old.
“It started out to be such a lovely party,” she says. “All of a sudden somebody yelled, ‘Fire!’ and the panic set in. My Mama tied me to her with her shawl to keep me from being swept all the way down the stairs. It was terrible. You could hear the screams and the moans. There was this one man, a father, trapped underneath a bunch of people. And all you could see was his arm sticking out, holding his little baby. The father died like that, holding the infant up. But he saved the baby’s life.”
In minutes seventy-four people died in the stairwell, all but eleven of them children.
Immediately the strikers made bitter accusations. Big Annie Clémence, still in the hall trying to calm the survivors, insisted to the Calumet News reporter on the scene that it was a man wearing the Citizens Alliance button who caused the fatal rush, although, at the inquest two days later, she testified she did not personally see the man. Charles Moyer, president of the federation, called the disaster mass murder, and he laid the blame squarely on the mineowners.
On Christmas Day, a stunned Calumet began making plans to bury the dead. As sympathy telegrams and reporters began arriving from around the world, the Citizens Alliance, eager to offset its tarnished image, got together a collection to aid the families of the victims and raised twenty-five thousand dollars. Some of the members took it to the federation president. Moyer refused the offering outright, calling it blood money. “We will bury our own dead,” he said.
That night, some twenty-five men, most of them openly wearing Alliance buttons, stormed Moyer’s room in the Scott Hotel in nearby Hancock. They beat him, shot him in the back with a small-caliber handgun, and then dragged him, bleeding profusely, more than a mile through the streets to the railway station. Although some of them were waving a hangman’s noose, Moyer was thrown onto a Chicago-bound train and told never to return to the copper country. His bullet wound turned out to be minor, and the next day, following surgery, he told the nation’s press from his hospital bed in Chicago what had happened to him.
Meanwhile, people in Calumet told one another in a half-dozen languages that the real reason the Alliance had tried to kill Moyer was because he had learned what happened Christmas Eve. Moyer, the rumor had it, found out that deputies held the doors of the Italian Hall shut and even clubbed people as they tried to leave.
That rumor was baseless and quickly disproved by the inquest, where scores of witnesses testified that deputies had worked to exhaustion trying to get people out and to untangle the bodies on the stairwell. But the hatred and mistrust was so deep that the rumor is believed by many to this day.
Officially the inquest jury never did place blame. “The stampede was caused by some person or persons, unknown to the jury at this time, raising the alarm of fire within the hall,” read their formal verdict on January 2, 1914.
While the inquest jury did not mention the Citizens Alliance, it all but exonerated it from any responsibility, noting in the verdict that only persons producing a union card or being vouched for by a union member were allowed into the party. That latter finding simply is not borne out in the testimony; the union cards were checked carefully at the start of the party, but latecomers reported that the crowd was so great and there was so much confusion that they went right in without showing any identification. Even patrons from the saloon below the hall testified that they walked up the stairs to look at the party without being challenged.
But all that was moot by then. The grief that enveloped the copper country numbed even the sense of outrage. The funerals for the victims were held in five different churches, in the native tongue of each nationality. The services lasted six hours. Afterward more than fifty thousand mourners took part in a five-mile-long procession to the cemetery, where many of the victims were buried in a mass grave.