Local author wins state history award

HOUGHTON – It’s usually pretty quiet at the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Collections: the scratching of pencils on paper, the rustling of files, the whirr of microfilm.

And then, one day, from writer Gary Kaunonen, a two-word phrase starting with “Holy” and ending with an exclamation point.

The discovery that prompted it – an undiscovered trove of mining company correspondence from the 1913-14 mining strike – led what could justifiably have been another “holy” moment. Kaunonen, along with co-author Aaron Goings, recently received a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan for their book “Community in Conflict: A Working-Class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy.” The awards are the highest honor given by the organization, the state’s official historical society.

Kaunonen said he and Goings had wanted to provide a working-class perspective on the strike. They were at the archives, looking through labor sources such as the Western Federation of Miners’ newspaper. Then they began to look at mining company correspondence. Something Kaunonen stumbled upon made him realize he was looking at something unique.

Cue the cursing.

“We wanted to make sure that we exhausted all the materials out there, so we went through those records and we wound up stumbling across those documents that had never been seen before,” Kaunonen said.

One discovery: Tom Raleigh, who was accused of murdering Alois Tijan and Steven Putrich in Seeberville in 1913, had been thought to have disappeared. But a letter to an official with the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. demonstrated that not only did the company know Raleigh’s whereabouts, he was spying for them on the Western Federation of Mines office in New York.

In the mining company correspondence, Kaunonen also found documentation of a campaign of intimidation and violence against the striking mine workers. The apex of that was the Italian Hall disaster, in which 73 people died in Calumet on Christmas Eve. The deaths are reputed to have come from a false report of a fire.

Kaunonen found letters suggesting that, while nobody had planned to murder people, the false report was disrupted and staged to disrupt the event, a Christmas celebration for striking miners’ families.

“From what we thought was going to be a reinterpretation of the strike, we feel we’ve added some pretty substantive sources to the strike, including the campaign of intimidation and violence, and that the mining company were complicit, along with the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department and the Citizen’s Alliance,” he said.

The research also uncovered coded messages sent between James McNaughton, manager of Calumet & Hecla, and C&H president Quincy Shaw. The officials would substitute words for numbers or places to disguise the number of replacement workers being brought into the Copper Country, and where they were being dropped off. Kaunonen said they read “like troop movements in a battle.”

Kaunonen said he and Goings are proud of the award, but can’t take full credit.

“Not only is it an award for us and the Copper Country, but the Copper Country’s great history, along with some of the institutions and places that have been working to preserve Copper Country history,” he said.