Film about the 1913 deadly stampede shown as part of the “One Book” series


Woody Guthrie, from his song “1913 Massacre”

More than a century ago, in the Upper Peninsula mining town of Calumet, copper miners went on strike and a stampede began when someone yelled “Fire!” 73 women and children died.

This week the Bedford Branch Library screened a film entitled Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. It was part of the annual film series related to the One Book, One Community program. OBOC Co-Chair Jennifer Saul hosted the event.

Locals gathered to watch the film documenting the disaster and the events leading up to it. Released for PBS in 2013, the film marked the 100th anniversary of the tragedy that took place in Calumet, a once-booming town on the state’s Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s northernmost tip.

A strike movement by workers at the Calumet and Hecla copper mines culminated in a stampede from a small dining room during a Christmas party at the Italian Hall. The aftermath included 73 women and children killed.

The stampede began when a scab yelled “Fire!” into the crowded hall and then locked the main door. The disaster later inspired the Woody Guthrie song “1913 Massacre”.

The strike itself had lasted nine months, and although it was unsuccessful and ended in tragedy, it was an important milestone in the labor and trade union movement of the 20th century.

The film begins by tracing the roots of mining operations in northern Michigan, noting that early surveyors determined that the region’s copper reserves were superior to those found elsewhere. The north-west corner of the Upper Peninsula became known as “Copper Country”. Mining was lucrative due to copper’s role in the burgeoning age of electricity.

Immigrants became a large part of Copper Country’s workforce. While previous, smaller endeavors employed skilled miners from the UK and Ireland, the boom created greater demand for more labour. Inexperienced workers from other parts of the world came to fill the demand. Mining jobs were often based on ethnicity or race.

As the film notes, the mining operation became one of the deadliest in history, with thousands dying in the mines each year. Calumet had a 1 in 200 chance of dying, according to the film. As tensions mounted, workers pushed back with efforts to strike, eventually leading to the Italian Hall disaster.

This year’s OBOC selection was “The Women of the Copper Country” by Mary Doria Russell. The historical novel is also the 2022 Great Michigan Read selected by the Michigan Humanities Council.

Saul noted before the film that the OBOC Facebook page posted a recipe for the meat pies — known as pies — that workers would take down the mines.

“I always find the food of other cultures very interesting,” she said, adding that mining towns like Calumet must have had a diverse range of food due to the workforce coming from all over the world.

Regarding book selection, Saul said she appreciates it when a book contains historical events that are not mentioned in scholastic history books.

“I feel like we didn’t cover that in history class,” she said.

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