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Yuletide union busting: Inside the Italian Hall Disaster on Christmas Eve 1913

104 years ago this month, some 400 miners and their families were at a Christmas Eve celebration in Calumet in the Upper Peninsula. 73 men, women and children would not live to see Christmas Day.

We know this tragedy as the Italian Hall Disaster and the 1913 Massacre, born out of the depths of a long and bitter miners' strike.

Troy Henderson, a historian with the Michigan History Center, and Steve Lehto, an attorney and the author of Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder joined Stateside to talk our state’s history.

Listen above for the entire conversation.

On the 1913 strike

Calumet, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, is well known for its copper mining industry, which was strong in the early 1900s. In 1913, with the help of the Western Federation of Miners, miners organized a strike. Union numbers were also growing at the mine.

The mine's owners planned to introduce the single-man drill, which would eliminate many miners’ jobs. In July of 1913, the strike began, and it divided the town. Mine management, which refused to even recognize the union, let alone negotiate with it, aimed to use violence to end the strike. “Much of the violence wasn’t caused by the strikers, it was caused by the strikebreakers, who were brought in by mine management,” Lehto said.

On the Italian Hall Disaster

A few months later, in December, Calumet miners and their families went to the Italian Hall for a Christmas party hosted by the Western Federation of Miners. “Somebody yelled ‘Fire!,’ sending the panicked children and families to the exit, which was the only exit, down a narrow stairway,” said Henderson. Someone running down the stairs tripped, causing a deadly cascade: “And when you add, you know, into the mix all these little kids and trying to get down a stairway, it just became catastrophic,” said Lehto. Ultimately, 73 people on the bottom, a majority of which were children, were crushed to death.

Lehto has a theory: “It sounds like somebody came in specifically to break the party up and the most obvious culprits were strikebreakers.” After all, there was no fire in the Italian Hall that evening. “Unfortunately, there’s still people in the community to this day who will argue with you about it and say, ‘No, it was simply a tragic accident,’” he said.

On how the disaster is remembered

The Italian Hall Disaster is still remembered in the Upper Peninsula, with the sordid details told through stories. “If you go to Calumet, the building is now gone,” said Lehto. “It eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1984, but the stone arch of Lake Superior sandstone that framed that stairway was preserved and is now on the spot where that building was and a monument marks the tragedy today.”

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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