The Great Depression brought changes

Copper Country's past and people

MTU Archives The old guardhouse at Fort Wilkins, along with the bridge spanning Fanny Hooe Creek, before restoration to the fort began under the WPA. The old bridge was replaced by the WPA and is still in use today.

The Lake Superior Copper Country had seen hard times since it was opened by the government in 1843. The Civil War had brought frequent labor strikes by workers demanding a higher wage for forced double shifts or extended workdays, while companies struggled to meet war-time metal demands that increased profits.  Overproduction of copper during the war led to economic recession in the world market afterward, in which wages and hours were both slashed without consideration to the workers or their communities.

Not learning from past mistakes, the mining companies again gorged themselves on war profits brought about by World War I copper demands, devastating their own economy in the process, and forcing many mines to shut down in the early 1920s. Some of these companies, like the Superior mine, were still trying to recover from the strike of 1913, which had a deeper and broader social impact on community members than most people realized at the time.

The strike of 1913 was a microcosm of a changing face of society all across the country in the early 20th century as workers began to push back against what they saw as heartless industrialists who believed that as they controlled the factories, foundries, mills, mines, and corporations, they could also control the lives the employees. Many believed industrialists regarded workers as just so many more pieces of machinery to be used as cheaply as possible until they broke, then to be thrown away and replaced.

Offered housing clustered around mines, some immigrant workers saw similarities between mining company policies and those of the mills and factories in Europe, particularly in the Great Britain, Scotland and Ireland, where countless thousands had suffered as a result of the Inclosure (now spelled Enclosure) Laws and the Industrial Revolution.

The Inclosure Laws, in a nutshell, occurred in Great Britain during a period between the early 1600s, and the early 20th century. In the beginning, it was the growing mercantile industry in England that started it. Wool was a quickly increasing source of revenue, encouraging Lords of Manors to evict tenant farmers and peasants from common lands for the purpose of converting farmlands to sheep pasture. Thousands of peasants and other rural people were forced from the properties. To accomplish this, the landlords pushed parliament to enact laws permitting them to do it.

Peasants, now dispossessed, crowded into cities such as London and Manchester, where they became an invaluable source of cheap labor to new factories and mills spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Low pay forced many people, once farmers but now wage earners, into the worst slums in the poorest sections of the cities. Children as young as eight years old were forced to work shifts as long as 14 hours in mills, factories, and mines. The poor received no protection from the government, or the Monarchy. Conditions were spoken of in novels by such writers as Charles Dickens, who himself had been a victim of the poverty of England as a young boy. His father was sent to debtor’s prison, and Charles was forced work in a mill to pay his father’s debts. When Calumet and Hecla general manager was given the nickname “King James” during the strike, to many immigrant workers, that moniker carried real weight. Other European nations were in little better condition than Great Britain.

By the turn of the century, company policies (that were little more than demands for increased production), and corporate paternalism were viewed by many as the same issues they had confronted and fled in the old countries. In America, they would not flee. They would stand and fight. The strike of 1913, was not just a labor strike, it was a social revolution.

Changes can occur slowly, or they can come so fast, people are not aware of their impacts at the time they occur. The latter happened in the Copper Country during the Great Depression.

Once rich companies like C&H, Quincy, and Copper Range, were now old, played out, and – like the Copper Country itself – struggling just to survive. They had lost the wealth, prestige, and power, to rule over their “manors” as they once had, and as state and federal monies began flowing into the region, men like MacNaughton simply became mine managers and potential employers.

All along the Keweenaw mining district, private companies, in partnerships with local, state and federal governments, set out to transform the region from a mining-based economy, to one built on tourism.

To accomplish this, great improvements were made to existing roads, while others were built. One example, Brockway Mountain Drive, was constructed by workers paid under the Work Projects Administration as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. WPA workers also constructed the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge as a prime tourist and vacation destination. Copper Harbor, once a springboard for copper explorers, then nearly a ghost town, became a resort town during the Depression, where state and federal monies funded the restoration of Fort Wilkins, creating a state park and campground there.

Wayside parks and picnic areas dotted trunk lines, inviting automobile travelers to enjoy the pristine beauty of the Lake Superior region.

To many conservatives and those still under the 19th century industrialist rationalization, these welfare programs, like the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps, cried “Socialism,” the very thing mine owners had fought so hard to combat during the strike of 1913.

While they may have been socialistic, the New Deal did something the remaining mining companies could not: it saved a district created by mining companies, and stripped them of their self-declared authority to rule over them as they once had.