I wish this was a story of a wonderful Christmas miracle, but instead, it’s about a celebration that ended in tragedy. The town of Calumet, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, was one of the wealthiest towns in the United States in the late 1800’s because of its copper deposits and mining industry.
On Christmas Eve in 1913, after being on strike for 5 months copper miners and their families gathered for a yuletide party on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet. During the party for the striking miners and their families, someone yelled, “Fire!” Although there was no fire, seventy-three people died while attempting to escape down a stairwell. Over half of those who died were children between the ages of six and ten. The belief is the door at the bottom of the stairway opened inward, and other sources say it opened outward toward the streets, but the narrow stairway became congested and after the first person fell it became a ” Domino Effect” with people trying to escape what they thought was a fire. The tragic event was part of the reason building codes were enacted for building capacity and fire escapes. The perpetrator who yelled “FIRE” creating the tragedy was never identified. It is believed to by some historians that “fire” was called out by an anti-union ally of mine management to disrupt the party. The event was memorialized by Woody Guthrie in the song “1913 Massacre”, which claims the doors were held shut on the outside by “the copper boss’ thug men”
The Italian Hall was built in 1908 as headquarters for Calumet’s benevolent society. The Society, organized along ethnic lines, encouraged and financially aided immigrants and provided relief to victims of hardship. Following the 1913 Christmas Eve tragedy, the hall continued to be used for nearly five decades. The two-story red brick building was razed in 1984. Through the efforts of the Friends of the Italian Hall and Local 324 of the AFL-CIO, the site of the building became a memorial park dedicated to the people who lost their lives in 1913.
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