July 27th, 2006


The Italian Hall – Part 1

I’ve been thinking about writing down this story for many years. It’s too big and sprawling a tale to tell in one post, so I’m going to write it a bit at a time, though I’m not making any promises as to when Part 2 will be appearing. There’s a point where I become a character in the story, but it begins long before I was born.

The green circle on this map indicates the location of Calumet, Michigan. You may observe that it is located in the middle of nowhere (though in all fairness, the Keweenaw Peninsula is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen). The 2000 census reported its population as a mere 879. When I last visited there in about 2000, I was surprised to see that Calumet can now boast of an actual fast food restaurant – there’s now a Burger King on the edge of town near the highway. And there is one remarkable structure still standing in Calumet that seems out of place in such a sleepy backwater, and that’s the Calumet Theatre. It’s a grand old palace with three balconies and a soaring proscenium. It is one of the few clues that this town is not just another blip on the map.

For you see, a century ago, Calumet was the most important city in Michigan, and the reason was copper. At that time, the mines of that region produced roughly half of the United States’ copper output. The mine workers were primarily first-generation immigrants from the length and breadth of Europe. Working in the mines was back-breaking and dangerous, and certain jobs carried with them dreadfully short average life spans. The mining company owned the town, the homes, the stores, and the schools. Once you were there, you had little choice but to do what the company told you to do. The rich kept getting richer off the labors of the poor, while the poor stayed poor, and that was how things worked up there for many years.

In 1913, though, the prospect of change came into Calumet. In an effort to improve working conditions and pay, a great many of the miners welcomed the organizing efforts of the Western Federation of Miners. This led to a strike – a bitter, often violent strike that frequently took on more the appearance of a civil war than of a labor dispute. The mine owners stood fast, and their goons took to the streets to reinforce management’s message. But the miners remained resolute and kicked a little butt themselves, and the strike dragged on for many months, right on into an exceptionally harsh winter.

The situation reached its climax on Christmas Eve of 1913. There was a Christmas party, primarily attended by wives and children of the striking miners, in the upper floor of a two-story building called the Italian Hall. At some point in the evening, someone yelled, “Fire!” and panic ensued, even though there was no fire. Everyone tried to get out at once down the front staircase. People fell and became wedged at the bottom in the doorway, but the panic only became worse. In a few minutes’ time, 75 people were crushed to death on the stairway, most of them children. This terrible event seemed to take the heart out of the strike effort, and the miners eventually returned to work without a new contract, defeated and humiliated.

I’ve read some of the coroner’s inquest on the incident. A great many people were interviewed. Many people testified that known strikebreakers had yelled fire, but no positive identification was ever made. Some testified that strikebreakers were holding the doors shut from the outside, but this too was never proven. The most memorable single piece of testimony concerned a young mother who, even as she was being crushed to death, held her infant son up above the pile so that he could be taken to safety.

In 1985, I was in Calumet for several days. I’ll talk about why I was there in a future post, but I want to mention that I met a remarkable woman while I was there. Her name was Anna Muretich. I suppose she’s probably no longer with us, but she had quite a story to tell, for she was on the staircase that night. She was only 5 years old in 1913, but certain memories remained strongly etched in her soul, and one got the distinct feeling that this incident had twisted and warped Anna’s entire life across seven decades. She told of how her father had picked her up and pitched her down the stairs like a ball onto the other bodies on the staircase. She’d hit her head on a pipe and was knocked unconscious. When she came to, she had been taken for dead and laid out alongside a row of corpses. She’d gone up to the fireman working the scene and asked him why the other children, her playmates, were sleeping on the stairs. The fireman had to explain to her that they were dead.

On that same trip, I also visited the site of the Italian Hall. It had been demolished only a few months earlier, but the rubble had not yet been hauled away, so I helped myself. I actually have in my possession a face brick from the front of the hall. Today the site is a small park, and a simple plaque commemorates it as the site of the tragedy.

The next time I write of this, we’ll journey to Calumet in the year 1974, which still predates my entry into the story by some years, but it was a time and a place where a future friend of mine was witness to events that would come to have a profound impact on the lives of a lot of people, including me.

[If you’d like to jump to Part 2, click here.]
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