The “Strike of 1913” begins in the Copper Country

The morning dawned clear and warm, giving the promise of a beautiful summer day. Wednesday, July 23 began just like any other work day in the Copper Country, with one exception: not every underground worker reported for work as would be the case on a normal working day in the Copper Country.

Earlier in the month, Western Federation of Miners’ Michigan Copper District Union Number 16 had sent copies of a letter to all the mine managers in the Lake Superior copper district, requesting a meeting, and setting a deadline for response to the letter of July 21.

When not one manager had replied by that date, local union members met on the 22 and voted overwhelmingly to begin a strike the next day. The next day was Wednesday, July 23, and true to their word, the men struck.

There have been arguments and debates ever since the strike began over how many Copper Country residents were union members, and of those how many struck. Some argue it was a small minority, others claim it was a majority. It is likely, however, that an exact answer to the questions will never be known for several reasons.

Mine managers themselves wanted to know the answers to those questions, then and later. The WFM, wanting to keep the figures and statistics from the managers, did not release accurate numbers. For public relations reasons, the WFM inflated the numbers of Michigan union members. For reasons of public relations, the mining companies claimed less than a fifth of their employees were union members, and of those members, not all who had joined the union were connected in any way with mining.

Historian and professor Arthur Thurner, wrote that WFM records showed the total membership of all five Copper Country locals at 7,085. If WFM records are even close to accurate, that would make nearly half of the total number of Copper Country underground workers members of the union.

No matter the number, and regardless of the debates (then or now), the opening morning of the strike began with unexpected quiet and not even a little fanfare.

James MacNaughton, general manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, was at his home near the end of Mine Street getting ready for work at his office on Calumet Avenue and Red Jacket Road when a telephone call informed him the strike had begun. When he arrived at his office at 8 a.m., he was informed that “most” of the underground day shift had reported for work.

It was not until later that afternoon that the rioting and violence began. At 4:30 p.m. strikers left a rally in Laurium and paraded toward the village of Red Jacket. Near the north end of the C&H mine, they armed themselves with clubs, pipes, rocks and anything else that could be thrown or swung.

Non-striking men, coming up from underground at the end of the day shift, were struck, kicked, and beaten. Surging southward across the mine’s surface plant, the strikers continued the violent assault on men and mine property.

South of the C&H, at the Osceola mine, rioting also occurred and a man was shot in the arm during the attack.

At the Quincy mine, some nine miles south, above Hancock, and at the Isle Royale mine, on the southern outskirts of Houghton, rioting strikers forced a stop to operations at those mines.

On the south range, strikers brandishing clubs, bags filled with rocks and even pistols, forced the shutdown of the Baltic, Trimountain, and Champion mines.

Mine managers, in the days before the strike, had deputized hundreds of men, creating a private police force with the aim of protecting mine property in the event of a violent strike. They quickly found their deputies insufficient and understrength to deal with the violence of the scale that occurred on the afternoon and early evening of that strange Wednesday.

For rioting to have occurred at any one mine was one thing. But mine managers believed that violence up and down the range could only be a concerted effort planned by the WFM, which already had an ugly reputation for violence, murder and disregard for the law or its representatives.

Conferring with Houghton County Sheriff James Cruse on the night of the 23, managers convinced the sheriff to call the governor, requesting troops of the Michigan Militia.

Governor Woodbridge Ferris, upon investigating, received reports that seemed somewhat contradictory. While one of his contacts told him he would be justified in mobilizing the militia, another told him he had seen no crowds or violence on the night of the 23, but informed him that 25 men had been sent to the hospital by strikers in the initial uprising.

Ferris mobilized the militia, and the first troops began arriving in the Copper Country on the 25.

What the Western Federation of Miners could not do through negotiations or other peaceful means, it did through violence. The WFM had forced the shutdown of the mines of the Lake Superior Copper District.

It began to look as though the WFM was going to employ the same type of tactics and terrorism it had used during strikes in the mines in western states. If that was to be the case, it would not be a peaceful strike, nor would it be a short one, for the mine managers had vowed they would close the mines forever before they would recognize the Western Federation of Miners.