- 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
After that there didn’t seem much left to strike for. When they buried the seventy-four victims of the Italian Hall disaster, Calumet started to die. The will of the miners was as broken as their spirits, and so was the union. On Sunday, April 13, the strike officially ended when the miners voted 3,104 to 1,636 to return to work. The next morning, hundreds of them turned in their union cards at the mine entrances.
After the funerals, miners started leaving Calumet by the trainload.
Almost overnight the union pulled up stakes and left town, heading to new organizing fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 1916 the Western Federation, plagued by dwindling membership and eager to distance itself from the tragic violence of Calumet, changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. But never again did it become a significant labor force, and in 1967 it was absorbed by the United Steelworkers.
For many of the strikers left behind in Calumet when the strike fizzled out in the spring of 1914, returning to the mines would have been an act of personal treason.
Trainloads began leaving the copper country, heading for the industrialized cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. By mid-1914, when Henry Ford introduced the five-dollar-a-day wage, as many as 850 people were leaving Calumet each week. Big Annie Clemenec was among them. Her marriage broke up during the strike, and she fell in love with a fiery newspaper editor who had been dispatched to Calumet from Chicago to cover the copper war for a Slovanianlanguage paper. The editor-reporter, Fran Shavs, did more than file dispatches from the front lines. He became so strong a supporter of the miners that he held rallies, and it was while leading such protests that he became enamored of the tall, determined woman whose outspoken defiance had made her the strike’s most visible symbol.
In the spring of 1914 Annie left Calumet to join Shavs in Chicago, where they married. That summer, she gave birth to a daughter, Darwina, who had been conceived during the hectic days of the strike. “She never was the same after the tragedy of the strike and the Italian Hall,” says Annie’s brother, Frank Klobuchar. “She never forgave.” Klobuchar left Calumet himself in 1919 and went to live with his sister and her new husband for a year. “She didn’t like to talk about the strike and the Italian Hall disaster,” he said. “It was a real sore spot with her. But she always thought it was the Citizens Alliance that was responsible. She said, ‘I was there. I know what happened.’ You know how soldiers are about the war? How they saw such horrible things that they just won’t talk about it? Well, that’s how Annie was. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
In Chicago during the twenties and thirties, Annie worked eighteen-hour days, holding down two jobs at different hat-making companies. She died there in the summer of 1956 at the age of sixty-eight.
For the one-industry town of Calumet, there was a brief spurt of false prosperity as World War I increased the demand for copper, but an oversupply in the world market soon ended it. In 1921 Calumet and Hecla shut down most of its Michigan operations for almost a year. When the mines reopened, they operated at only 50 percent of capacity. Copper prices kept dropping through the Depression years, and World War II didn’t help: fixed prices kept wages and profits low. In 1968, after years of decline, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company closed its last mine in the copper country.
In 1980 a proclamation from the governor of Michigan declared June 17 Annie Clemence Day, and a Resolution of Tribute was issued by the state legislature. A portrait of Big Annie, holding her flag, was hung in the state capitol, and she was inducted as the first member of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Last year in Calumet the Italian Hall building was demolished. Lake View Cemetery, where most of the seventy-four Christmas Eve victims were buried, now contains more than twenty-nine thousand graves. And nine hundred people presently live in Calumet.