100 Years Ago, The Italian Hall Disaster

This post was contributed by Lucy Hough, a freelance writer from Marquette. She’s also a master’s student at NMU. You can follow her on Twitter at @yes_lucy. Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech archives.

From an early age, we learn that to needlessly yell “Fire!” in a public space is dangerous, and, more, against the law. This law has groundings in the tragic incident that happened in Calumet in 1913, 100 years ago this December. The Italian Hall was having a children’s party on Christmas Eve when someone came in the front door and shouted “fire!” Predictably, people ran to the doors but the chaos made it difficult for people to escape the building. Seventy-three people died, many of them children. There are some accounts of the event that the doors opened inward and people were crushed as others tried to exit, but some historians have refuted that idea.

The disaster came at a tumultuous time in Calumet’s history. Copper mining was, of course, a major industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula, and at this time, workers were striking since the summer for union recognition and better wages, hours and working conditions. The people in the Italian Hall on Christmas Eve were family members of the striking workers.

The cause of the fatal shout has warranted much debate amongst scholars. Some historians and history enthusiasts suggest that it was someone trying to hurt the strike who shouted “fire” that night. Steve Lehto is a historian who has written widely on this topic, and in this letter he wrote in response to a blog post “Italian Hall Fire”) on the topic, he lays his case for why it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that it was someone who was trying to hurt the strike.

“Put into the larger context of the Calumet strike – where strikebreakers and mines allies routinely harassed the union – the finger would naturally point to mine management. Couple that with the sworn testimony saying the man who raised the false cry was wearing a Citizens Alliance pin and you have a good case.” – Steve Lehto.

Others suggest that the cry was innocent enough. Historian Arthur Thurner thought perhaps there was a fire in a different part of the hall. After the event, however, no one in Calumet could be found who believed that there was a fire.

This year marks the incident’s 100 year anniversary. The day after the event, on Christmas day, the Daily Mining Gazette reported a list of the dead and this note: “The following listed persons died in a fire at the Italian Hall at Calumet and they were families of strikers who were celebrating Christmas. A stupid person yelled fire and caused a great panic.”

The abandoned hall stood for a long time after the disaster, but in 1984 it was torn down. In Calumet, on 7th Street, the arch entrance to the building still stands with a historical marker about the event. It is maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

A lot has been written about the Italian Hall Disaster, from books to songs to movies. Lehto has written multiple books on the topic, including Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder. He also updates a Facebook page about the event. A film was created about the event inspired by the Woody Guthrie song, “1913 Massacre.” Details about the film by the same name can be found at 1913massacre.com.

Italian Hall Memorial - Calumet

Italian Hall Memorial Arch, a Keweenaw Heritage Site, in Calumet, MI (Photo by L. Hiltunen 09/2011) Source