looking back

The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History does not hold any stories of the disaster itself, but it does have good information about Jews in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Last month, Israel experienced the worst civil disaster in its history. On April 30, tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews attended a celebration of Lag b’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel. As celebrants began to leave the event, they used narrow, slippery stairs. Without warning, a human stampede developed, with 45 people crushed to death and at least 150 wounded.

Did you know that Michigan was the scene for a similar horrific calamity, the Italian Hall Disaster in the village of Red Jacket in 1913? In that era, Red Jacket, which became Calumet in 1929, was home to the massive Calumet & Hecla copper mine and 5,000 citizens; more than 25,000 lived in Calumet Township.

looking back

The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History does not hold any stories of the disaster itself, but it does have good information about Jews in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For example, David Heineman wrote a series of articles about Jewish immigration to Michigan for the Chronicle in 1918. In the Dec. 6 issue, he states that the Jewish Leopold and Austrian families owned stores in Calumet Township and nearby Hancock. 

The Italian Hall Disaster occurred in the midst of a major labor strike against the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. The now-defunct Western Federation of Miners began the strike in July 1913 and it lasted until April 1914. This bitter, prolonged labor action still divides opinion in the UP and the Italian Disaster is still a living memory.

looking back

On Dec. 24, 1913, about 400 men, women and children gathered for a Christmas party on the second floor of the Italian Hall, a local community meeting place. The partiers were supporters of the strike. In the midst of their celebration, someone yelled “Fire!” Although there is some evidence that an anti-union instigator yelled the fatal word, no one knows for certain. What is known is when the crowd rushed to escape, there were too many people for the narrow stairway passage. Much like the circumstances at Mt. Meron, people slipped, fell and were crushed. At the Italian Hall, 73 were killed; 59 of the fatalities were children.

In the aftermath, there were investigations including that of a subcommittee from the House of Representatives that traveled to the UP, but no conclusions were reached. The event is still shrouded in mystery today. Since that time, a number of books have been written about the disaster. Woody Guthrie sang the song, “1913 Massacre” and, in 1984, the Italian Hall was demolished. Only the facade is left as a memorial to those who perished. 

looking back

The strike was the beginning of a slow decline for copper mining in the UP. Calumet now has about 800 residents.

There are references to Calumet and the UP in the Davidson Archive. See, the “Chabad House on Wheels Reaches Upper Peninsula” (Aug. 4, 1978 JN). The Yiddishe Cup Klezmer Band performed in the Calumet Opera House (June 16, 2001). “Frozen Chosen” reported the efforts of Jewish UP communities to stay united (Oct. 10, 2016).

The Italian Hall Disaster, like Mt. Meron, was a tragedy reported around the world. Although not a Jewish event, it did have an impact on Jews and many other citizens in Michigan’s UP. 

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at
www.djnfoundation.org.