Woody Guthrie’s Michigan Lament
Remembering the story behind “1913 Massacre”
Aglow in a darkened room at the heart of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, a giant backlit map of the continental United States beckons visitors to investigate the towns and byways of “Woody’s America.”
The interactive exhibit explores the history behind the stories of Woody Guthrie’s iconic songs – from California to the New York island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, and the roads in between.
Oddly, the map does not include Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – an especially curious omission since it was there, 105 years ago, that a deadly Christmas Eve incident would inspire one of Guthrie’s most memorable ballads: “1913 Massacre.”
The dirge-like song begins:
Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the Copper Country.
I’ll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
And the miners are having their big Christmas ball…
Boom times for copper mining in Michigan began in the 1840s, powered by the brawn of immigrants who would descend into the mine shafts and tunnels, working by candlelight or in virtual darkness to wrest ore from the earth in 10- to 12-hour shifts, six days a week, for pay ranging from $1.50 to $3 a day.
Demand grew with the spread of copper wires in industrialization, electrification and communication. Michigan became the nation’s largest producer of copper. Along the way, thousands of miners died – in fires, rock falls, shaft plunges, machinery accidents and misfired explosives.
By the summer of 1913, more than 9,000 miners unionized and asked for safety precautions, a raise and shorter work weeks. The mining companies refused to acknowledge the demands or meet for discussions, prompting the Copper Country’s first strike on July 23, 1913.
Tension and Tragedy As the months dragged on and winter set in, tensions rose. Belts were tightened. James MacNaughton, general manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, declared: “Grass will grow in the streets before C&H recognizes the union. The union must be killed at all cost.” Protests were met by National Guardsmen, deputized strike breakers and company-funded anti-union rallies.
Five months into the strike, the women’s auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners organized an afternoon Christmas Eve party for the miners and their families. On the second floor of the town’s Italian Hall, a Christmas tree was lit, piano pieces were played, Santa visited and small gifts were distributed to dozens of children. For many, it would be the only present they would get for the holiday.
Guthrie’s fourth verse described the scene:
There’s talking and laughing and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it you’re friends with us all,
And you’re dancing around and around in the hall…
The mood changed when a man twice shouted – falsely – that there was a fire in the hall. In the panic to retreat down the steep staircase to the street, people were smothered and crushed by the weight of others trying to flee.
Within minutes, 73 people were killed – and 59 of the dead were children, as young as 2.
In his book Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder, attorney Steve Lehto reports the man who cried fire worked as a supporter of the anti-union Citizens’ Alliance, and that the doors appeared to be blocked from the outside, preventing an escape from within. Investigations at the time were slipshod, and no charges were filed.
Guthrie’s final verses conclude:
Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree,
The scabs outside still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
‘See what your greed for money has done.’
Written by Guthrie after reading an account of the disaster and performed in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1945, “1913 Massacre” memorialized an American tragedy that had faded from memory after two World Wars.
Aftermath and Legacy Although the Guthrie Center map omits Calumet, Calumet remembers Woody Guthrie.
Its population, which once numbered 6,000, is now around 700. The Italian Hall was razed in 1984; only the lonely arched doorway that had been the entrance remains. The site near the corner of Elm and Seventh is today preserved as a memorial, run in partnership with the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
Signs and plaques tell of the months-long strike that preceded the deaths, and of the heart-breaking aftermath of dozens of white caskets being marched down the frozen streets to Lakeview Cemetery on Dec. 28.
The strike would last four more months. On April 10, the miners voted to end the walkout, despite the lack of concessions. Only half were hired back – and then only if they disavowed any further attempt to organize. The 8,235 returning men were required to sign back into work in a ledger, which was then presented to James MacNaughton. Each also was required to give 5 cents toward a commemorative watch for the mine’s superintendent, which was presented to him with a decreed note of thanks: “Due to your attitude of no compromise, the Copper Country is not afflicted with the presence of the Western Federation of Miners.”
Every Christmas Eve, the town lights 73 luminaries to line the walk to the door where the hall once stood.
In the darkness, the lights flicker on the surrounding plaques. One from the AFL-CIO Northwest Upper Peninsula Labor Council states: “Mourn the dead; fight for the living.” Another features a photograph of Woody Guthrie and his guitar with a tribute to his “1913 Massacre,” concluding: “His song drew renewed interest in the strike and provokes listeners to this day.”
The PBS documentary Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913 ends with a rendition of Guthrie’s ballad, concluding, “Taken as history, the song is a flawed work … But taken as art, the song is transformative. It became a staple in the folklore canon, and elevated a tragedy into folklore.”