Names on a wall

The Italian Hall archway is shown here, during a FinnFest presentation. Made from bricks taken from the Italian Hall (which was torn down decades ago), this archway is the only monument to the tragedy that claimed 73 lives, 59 of whom were children.

by Larry Chabot

There’s little to see at the Italian Hall tragedy site in Calumet, where 73 people lost their lives on Christmas Eve 1913. At the quiet corner of 7th and Elm, the site offers a brick walkway and archway made of Italian Hall bricks, plus a few plaques and a historical marker. There is no sign of the building’s layout, where a tavern and grocer occupied the bottom floor, and narrow stairs led to the second story ballroom. There is no list of the victims, but this is about to change.

Miners at the huge Calumet & Hecla copper mine had been on strike for five months when the union auxiliary held a Christmas party for workers’ children. Because food and presents were hard to come by, the party would be a boon for the families. Three hundred were expected to attend, but a total of 700 stopped by for presents and treats. Most were still present when the unthinkable happened.

All of them had trudged up the narrow stairway to the second floor, and were leaving the same way. This was the only useful exit, although a hard-to-find fire escape and some ladders reached through windows were at the back of the room. The setup was a recipe for disaster. Peggy Germain, author of two Italian Hall books, wrote that “death was an uninvited guest.”

Amidst the gaiety, a shout of FIRE! was heard by some, causing a panic-induced stampede to the narrow stairs as people climbed over tables and chairs to get there. As the partiers reached the bottom and came up against the doors, a second wave most likely knocked them down, fell themselves, and were smothered by the others above them.

The bodies piled up in a solid mass. Some were crushed, others suffocated. A comment posted on the Pastycam web site wrote: “Can you imagine the shock of the rescuers when they finally pried open the doors? As they pulled bodies from the staircase?” The answer is ‘yes’ because three of my wife’s relatives were lost in the crush. My wife’s cousin, standing at the foot of what had been the stairs, can honestly say: “My grandmother died here, a few feet from where I stand. And her son, and her sister. They were at the bottom of the stairs, just inside the door.”

It’s uncertain who started the panic, or why, but debate has raged ever since. Testimony from some survivors and researchers blamed the mining company, or a Citizens Alliance of local residents, drunks or pranksters, even a patron in a Montana bar who confessed. Some claimed there was no such shout. At the time, the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette called it “the most horrible catastrophe in the history of the state of Michigan.” Several investigations followed, including a hearing by a U.S. House of Representative subcommittee. Of course, there was no fire.

Of the 73 fatalities, 59 were children, and at least one women was pregnant. The youngest fatality was 2-and-a-half, the oldest 66. Death came in threes to at least six families. Author Peggy Germain, who lives in the same block as the Italian Hall, wrote Tinsel & Tears (a people-centered account, with verbatim court testimony), and False Alarm (which reprinted all 73 death certificates). The tragedy spawned other books, poems, songs, countless articles, and memorials like one at the 2013 FinnFest celebration.

A local committee is raising funds for a monument listing all 73 names and ages (there is no such list at the site). Donations have come from local organizations and the general public, and are accepted on the Houghton Keweenaw County Genealogical Society web site at HKCGS.org. The society is donating a copy of its book, Families Left Behind, to those who contribute $50 or more.

Committee member Joanne Thomas said the black granite marker will be placed in a prominent spot at the site, which is maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

“Fundraising is moving along,” she said. “For the monument to be installed this fall, we need to reach our goal soon.”

The $30,000 goal will underwrite completion of the project. She said plans are under way for an autumn concert at the historic Calumet Theatre, a venue closely associated with the tragedy. Folk musician Oren Tikkanen is steering the planning.

More information is available at Facebook.com/wepaytribute. Contributions can also be made to the Calumet Village’s “gofundme” page, or sent to the Calumet Village office at 340 Sixth Street, Calumet, MI 49913.

So what happened to the Italian Hall? In 1984, because of fear that it could collapse and injure passersby and children from a nearby school, the building was razed. On the first try at knocking down the sad landmark, a wrecking ball bounced off the building without doing any damage.

“Eerie,” spectators muttered.

MM

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