Copper production cost more than money

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Copper Country mines employed tens of thousands of men, the vast majority of whom were foreign-born immigrants. Throughout the United States mining industry, there existed a steady decline of American-born males willing to work in mining. One of the principle reasons was the rapidly increasing risk of severe injury or death while on the job. More powerful machinery, more powerful explosives, management-ordered work speed-ups and sometimes worker inexperience, were all contributing factors to the rising rate of fatal and non-fatal accidents in mining. In the Copper Country, things were no different.

The Houghton County Mine Inspector’s Report for 1890-91 recorded 34 accidents in Houghton County mines in the one-year period. Of those 34 accidents, 28 of them were fatal. Of these, seven men were killed by falling down shafts. Six were killed by falling rock. Six men were killed from premature dynamite blasts or explosives-related accidents. Others were killed in machine-related accidents, such as being crushed by rock skips. The report listed the nationalities and jobs of each man killed, and the statistics are revealing insofar as the ways in which companies viewed various immigrant groups.

Of those killed, none were Americans. Of the nine Finns killed, five were miners, three were trammers and one was a “wheeler” (trammer) boss. Of the four Italians killed, not one was a miner. Of the six Englishmen killed, three were miners; two were mining captains and one was a lander. None of the trammers killed were English. Of the two Irishmen killed, both were miners, as was the one Scotch fatality.

By 1910, the number of accidents had risen from 34 to 58, of which all but four were fatal.

In 1890, the total number of Finnish deaths recorded totaled nine. Slovenian, Croatian and Serb (collectively referred to as “Austrians”) comprised three deaths. By 1910, the number of Finnish fatalities had risen from nine to 11, and the number of “Austrians” killed had jumped from three to 15.

Not all accidents resulted in death. On Feb. 10, 1910, John Pati, a trammer in the Centennial mine, suffered a broken leg when he was struck by a rock rolling down the floor of a stope. Four months later, Victor Asplund also suffered a broken leg by a fall of rock in the No. 15 C&H shaft.

They were fortunate compared to Oscar Mattson and Emil Krangquist who, as miners at the Atlantic mine, were ramming dynamite into a drilled (shot) hole with an iron bar. In the resulting explosion, Krangquist lost his right foot at the instep, while Mattson’s right arm was blown off above the elbow, along with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Mattson died three days later, on Sept. 20, 1890. The mine inspector noted in his report that the men had been warned against using iron bars to tamp shot holes loaded with dynamite.

Some accidents, like those of Pati and Asplund, were incident to mining. In other accidents, such as Mattson’s and Krangquist’s, the victims were clearly at fault.

No matter who was at fault, however, the number of accidents in mining was escalating and the Bureau of Labor took a hard look at the issue in its Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor, Volume 21, published in 1910. Among other related topics, the issue of liability and compensation were addressed.

“Ordinary risks, not due to the employee’s negligence,” Lindley D. Clark wrote in his article, Nature of Liability and Compensation Systems, “are held to the be assumed by the employee, and for injuries resulting therefrom, no recovery of damages can be had; these risks include the acts, negligent or otherwise, of ordinarily carefully selected and ordinarily skillful and competent fellow-workmen.”

In other words, any man applying for a mining job was to understand the risks involved and automatically assumed those risks upon applying for the job. If he was injured, he had paid in advance for his access to a company hospital and a company doctor, but beyond that, he would expect no compensation from the company while he mended. If he was permanently disabled, the company expected him to vacate his company-owned house to make room for an able-bodied worker.

If a man was the victim of a fatal accident, an occasional death was an accepted risk in mining, and the company expected the widow and any children to vacate the house within a given length of time.

Accident victims were, of course, free to file lawsuit against the company, and many did. But few could afford the court costs and legal fees, and instead did as company managers told them.

For the management of most of the Copper Country mines, mining boiled down to profits and losses. A mine profited by a productive worker. A mine lost if it compensated a disabled worker who had been disabled producing the profit for the company.

For the worker who could not afford to leave the district but knew he had no protection in the event of a disability, there was nowhere he could turn to for help until trade and labor unions began arriving in the Copper Country searching for new members.

Graham Jaehnig can be contacted at