Italian Hall: Talk tells story of families affected

HOUGHTON – The effects of the Italian Hall disaster extend far beyond the 73 people who lost their lives.

The Houghton-Keweenaw Genealogical Society presented research into what became of some of the families of the Italian Hall victims at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw Thursday night. The presentation is part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park’s Fourth Thursday in History series.

The findings were collected into “Families Left Behind,” which tracks the paths of the Italian Hall families from 1913 until the present. The research began for an exhibit that debuted at the museum last year, the centennial of the miners’ strike and the Italian Hall disaster.

Research went on from January up to the exhibit’s debut in June.

“We got to thinking, ‘Well, you hate to just pack up this research and put it away, and that’s when we decided that we’d put it into a book,” said Avis West of the Genealogical Society. “We continued to do research through the summer and into the fall There were a lot of things that weren’t in the exhibit that we found later.”

West presented findings on two of the families where HKGS members had to do more digging.

One of the questions was finding out what happened to the son of Abram and Elizabeth Niemala, who both died in the fire. According to one story, Elizabeth’s body was found upright with her son in her arms; a fireman had to take him away.

The search was coming up dry until they looked at the death certificate – the informant, Hilma Honka, turned out to be a relative of his mother. The 1920 census showed a Reino Honka, who was the right age to be the missing child.

Through further research, they found he graduated from Calumet High School in 1931, then became a commercial fisherman in St. Joseph, Mich..

Finally, West found a burial record for Honka in Virginia, and found he had been killed in an accident while teaching a military class. West tracked down his obituary. The key sentence: “Captain Honka was born and raised in Calumet, Michigan, and his parents died when he was four years old.”

“We only had it solved about two weeks before the book had to go to the publisher,” West said.

They also tracked down the surviving members of the Aaltonen family, which lost the mother and two daughters. After long periods of non-work, the father deserted his sons in 1916, who were adopted by different families.

Arnie moved downstate and became an engineer with Chrysler, and gave back to the communities up here and in his home of Huntington Woods, West said. Waino had a brief stint of the military and later became a dogcatcher in Gary, Kan.

By 1949, he had moved to California, from where he wrote to his aunt. Waino wanted a loan for an operation his daughter needed, and also information about what had happened to members of his family.

“He said, ‘If I ran into my brother on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him,'” West said.

All proceeds for the book are going to the KNHP and are earmarked for the Italian Hall. KNHP archivist Jeremiah Mason said the park plans to do interpretive and preservation work at the site.

Sig Janners of Houghton was intrigued by the efforts to answer questions about the Italian Hall families. He had been struck by the contrast between the attention paid to it now and the avoidance of it in the immediate aftermath. As West noted in the meeting, they had searched local newspapers for mentions of it on the anniversaries following the event. They found nothing.

“I just find it interesting genealogically to try to figure out, especially when it’s over 100 years ago, what happened,” he said. “It’s always amazing to me, that people kind of forget what happened now, and then in about 50 years they think ‘What happened to those people? Why didn’t they ask those questions?'”