100 years later: Remembering the Italian Hall tragedy

CALUMET – The centennials of many events are celebrated with happiness, but one centennial will be commemorated with some sadness, when the village of Calumet and other entities recognize the 100th anniversary of the Italian Hall tragedy.

On Dec. 24, 1913, during a Christmas party for striking copper miners’ families on the second floor of what was the Italian Hall building on Seventh Street in Calumet, a stampede down the stairs after what many of the survivors claimed was someone yelling fire, caused the deaths of 73 people, mostly children, who were crushed and suffocated.

The Italian Hall building was demolished in 1984, but the arch over the ground floor door to the second floor stairway was saved, and it’s now part of Italian Hall Park on the site.

Dave Geisler, village of Calumet president, said there will be a ceremony at the Italian Hall site beginning at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 24.

Although the Christmas Eve ceremony was discussed during planning for a similar ceremony, which took place in June during FinnFest, Geisler said serious planning actually started in November.

Also taking part in the Dec. 24 ceremony will be Calumet Township, Main Street Calumet and the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Geisler said he will be reading the names of the victims of the tragedy during the ceremony, and although there are 73 of them, he’s practicing the proper pronunciation of the names.

“It’s important we get them correct,” he said.

Geisler said he hopes he can finish reading the names in about 15 minutes.

Organizers decided to have the ceremony at 3:30 p.m., Geisler said, because it’s Christmas Eve, and many people will want to go to evening church services or travel to family or friends. It’s uncertain for those reasons, and because of weather conditions, how many people will show up for the ceremony.

“We really don’t know,” he said.

Although the ceremony will take place during daylight hours, Geisler said the Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw Rotary Club will display 73 luminaries as they have done at the site on Christmas Eve for years. A wreath with 73 white roses will be placed beneath the arch also, and the descendent of the victims who are able to come to the ceremony will participate in that part of the ceremony.

“We’ll ask them to come up and take one of those roses,” he said.

The Italian Hall site is maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Tom Baker, KNHP management assistant, said the Christmas Eve ceremony is something park staff want to be part of.

“The Italian Hall site is an important part of the park,” he said.

Also speaking during the ceremony, Baker said, will be Calumet Village Comptroller Sue Dana, who will read Psalm 23, and Rev. Laura Eaton of Christ Episcopal Church in Calumet. Silent Night will be sung at the end of the ceremony, after which there will be a one-block precession to the village hall next to the Calumet Theatre for a display of photographs taken during and after the tragedy.

The exhibit will be up until Dec. 30. In the ballroom of the theatre, the Michigan Technological University display of the 1913-14 Copper Strike, called Tumult and Tragedy, will also be on display until Jan. 16.

Geisler said the Christmas Eve ceremony is expected to be very dignified.

“It is an incredibly sad event,” he said.