Ceremony conducted at Italian Hall site
CALUMET – It was probably appropriate the sky was cloudy and gray Thursday during a commemoration of the 1913 Italian Hall tragedy, which took place at the site where the building stood on Seventh Street in Calumet until the 1980s.
In front of a large crowd gathered around the site, the ceremony was a presentation of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, and it was the park’s contribution to FinnFest USA 2013 activities in Calumet.
Dave Geisler, Calumet village president, began the program by saying 73 people, including 49 Finnish Americans and 59 children, died on Dec. 24, 1913, during a Christmas party in the ballroom of the Italian Hall, in an act of senseless violence.
Referencing recent mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut, and the Boston Marathon bombing, Geisler said similar senseless acts still happen.
“Such violence continues today,” he said.
Giving the historical perspective for the tragedy was Larry Lankton, professor emeritus of 19th century industrial history at Michigan Technological University.
Lankton said at the time of the 1913-14 copper strike, Finns were the largest foreign-born ethnic group in Houghton County and the fourth largest ethnic group working the copper mines in Calumet. Many mine bosses didn’t like the Finns, which often made life difficult for them.
“I think you would have found things less inviting,” he said.
At the time of the strike, Lankton said the copper coming out of the Calumet & Hecla mines in and around Calumet was the lowest grade in the United States and it brought the lowest price per pound in the U.S.
Lankton said one of the main reasons for the strike was the fact the mine owners wanted to drop the two-man-operated drills used in the mines and switch to one-man drills to save money. However, miners were concerned doing so would negatively affect many of them.
“They could do the math,” he said of the miners. “Half of the miners were going to lose their jobs.”
The strike lasted from July 1913 to Easter 1914, and Lankton said the cause was taken up by the Western Federation of Miners, which saw a large increase in membership among the local copper miners.
There was much violence and many deaths during the strike, Lankton said.
“That strike was very divisive, it was very bitter,” he said.
On Dec. 24, 1913, Lankton said several hundred miners and their families gathered in the Italian Hall for a Christmas party. Although it’s never been confirmed, it was stated at the time someone yelled fire, which caused a panic and stampede down the stairs during which the 73 victims were crushed to death or suffocated.
“Basically, all hell broke loose,” he said. “This was like the worst thing you could imagine,” he said.
Although the strikers had legitimate concerns about safety and pay, Lankton said the strike may have been poorly timed and planned because the mine owners had a large amount of money and could wait out the strikers. The strike eventually bankrupted the WFM.
Also speaking at the memorial ceremony was Pertti Torstila, Finnish secretary of state at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Torstila said he and other Finns appreciated what their ancestors sacrificed in the copper-mining era.
“We’re proud to hear how much the Finns contributed,” he said.
Torstila said the Italian Hall ceremony also represented all workers from the period.
“Times were difficult,” he said. “We are proud of these people.”
Mike Pflaum, superintendent of the KNHP, which oversees the Italian Hall site, said the site was a hallowed place and representative of a significant period.
“The 1913 Michigan copper strike was an important part of our history,” he said.
The story of the Italian Hall must be told to each generation so it isn’t forgotten, Pflaum said.
“The Italian Hall tragedy remains as raw in this community as it did 99 and a half years ago,” Pflaum said.
Retired Rev. Robert Langseth spoke about one of the religious leaders in Calumet who supported the strikers and repeated one of that man’s comments from the time.
“Management is unionized,” Langseth quoted. “Labor deserves the same.”
After Langseth spoke, two wreaths with 73 lilies were placed at the arch from the doorway at the Italian Hall, which is all that remains of the building and is a monument at the site.
To close the ceremony, Geisler said after the stampede, 5,000 people gathered at the building.
“Fireman and deputies began removing victims from the Italian Hall,” he said.
Many parents could be heard calling for their children.
There was no local morgue, so the deceased were laid out in the village hall, Geisler said. Parents were then allowed to look for their children.
“Some of them took their children home that night,” he said.