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Copper Strike 1913-14

Big Annie of Calumet leading strike

During the Houghton County copper strike in 1913 the National Guard was called into action in the early stages to maintain peace.  Their tenure in the area was marked by peaceful protection of non-union workers and chaperoning parades of picketers.  The removal of National Guard troops with a simultaneous increase in the local deputies and armed guards increased the tension between the two sides of the strike as the deputies were poor managers of the strike situation.  This led to an increase in violence between all parties involved: the strikers, mining companies, and the deputies.  The strike lasted for almost a year with the tensions leading to stubbornness in negotiations between the two sides which prolonged the strike.

Initiation of the Strike

The copper mines in the Keweenaw Peninsula operated without conflict throughout most of their history prior to 1913 due to the paternalistic culture of the companies over their employees.  The companies provided housing, operated libraries and schools, and organized many other social welfare programs for the miners (Kaunonen, Goings, 5).  This culture was designed to cultivate loyal employees that depended on the companies.  Unfortunately for the companies, this backfired as foreign workers were imported to fill the underground positions and were not given the same treatment as the native workers.  This created a divide between the foreign and native workers which was triggered into a strike with the prospect of a one-man drill being introduced.  The one-man drill would eliminate half of the underground jobs, mostly held by foreigners, leaving them without a job, housing, or many other options.  Organizing under the Western Federation of Miners in the spring of 1913, the copper mine workers officially went on strike on July 24, 1913 (Lankton, 192-193).

In an effort to force the mines to shut down, the strikers resorted to beating the non-striking workers with clubs to stop them from entering the mines.  This tactic worked and the mines closed to protect worker’s safety, however the violent acts established the strikers as the aggressor and the mines as the victims in the initial stages of the strike (Lankton, 196).  In response to the violent acts, the Houghton County Sheriff appealed to Governor Ferris for National Guard reinforcement, convinced that the local deputies could not cover the large area of the strike.  Governor Ferris responded rapidly and ordered the entire Michigan National Guard to the Houghton County area.  Troops started arriving as soon as July 25 and all troops were stationed by July 27.  In total, there were 2,354 troops with 2 artillery batteries, 2 cavalry units, 1 company of engineers, and 3 regiments of infantry all under the command of Brig. Gen. P. L. Abbey (“Send Troops to all the Mines”).  The strikers urged the governor himself to come to the mines and inspect the working conditions of the miners in order to convince him that the strikers are the victims.  Ferris refused this request and replied “Miners and mine owners must make every possible effort to settle their industrial dispute. This can be done without the presence of the governor. I expect both sides will see the wisdom of asking for only what is right.” (“Displeased by Governor’s Reply”)

National Guard Brings Peace

The presence of the National Guard created a more orderly strike environment with the troops handling the protests and parades with unbiased discipline.  The first strike event after the deployment of the National Guard was a parade of 3,000 strikers that marched from Red Jacket to Larium, passing right through the National Guard camp.  General Abbey was in control of the situation and there were only minor incidents that were well handled by the troops to disperse the strikers (“Resume All Pumps Under Military Guard; Strikers’ Protest Fails to Impress Ferris.”).  Strikers petitioned Governor Ferris to remove troops from Houghton County saying “Their function is to preserve the peace, not to break strikes.  Strikers are peaceful, troops are an unnecessary burden upon taxpayers.” (“Prominent Business Men Sign Petition Asking Governor to Keep Troops Here.”)  Meanwhile, businessmen in the district created an anti-petition to the governor urging him to keep the troops in Houghton County “until order is restored and property is safe.” (“Prominent Business Men Sign Petition Asking Governor to Keep Troops Here.”)  Strikers showed their contempt of the National Guard further by threatening two members of the company of engineers.  One of the men was threatened to have his head cut off and the other was threatened to be waylaid and beat if they did not desert the company (“Prominent Business Men Sign Petition Asking Governor to Keep Troops Here.”).  The strikers thus portrayed themselves again as the aggressors against the companies and now the National Guard as well.

The National Guard maintained a neutral attitude toward both the miners and mining companies for the duration of the strike which helped to make them effective peacekeepers for the strike situation.  Major Vandercook of the National Guard explained their neutrality as to “preserve order and protect lives and property without giving either side cause to feel that the troops were backing either the operators or the strikers” (“Troops are Neutral”).  The main task of the National Guard became following the picketers while mine workers were traveling to the mines and ensuring that the workers were allowed to safely enter the mines (Meeker, 67).  When it was required to disrupt riots, they did so peacefully without brandishing weapons or threatening strikers with violence.  They completed this task with such effectiveness that there were no violent riots in the first few weeks of the strike, convincing Governor Ferris to send two artillery batteries home and gradually reduce the number of soldiers from 2,565 initially to 500 by the end of September (Meeker, 67).  Ferris was also under the impression that the increase in local deputies, 430 in July to 1,700 in November, would allow them to protect the mines and mine workers without the National Guard present.  The mining companies also hired 52 armed guards (Waddell men) to protect the mines (Meeker, 67).  The transition between the National Guard maintaining peace and the local deputies and Waddell men was met with harsh criticism by the strikers, for as much as they did not like the National Guard, they despised the deputies and Waddell men.

Violence during the Strike

The decrease in the number of soldiers in addition to the concurrent reopening of some of the mines led to an increase in protests and riots which fell to the deputies and Waddell men to control.  In sharp contrast with the National Guard, they were quick to use violence against the strikers.  In one incident in Painesdale, a striker was walking home along a path through the mine’s property and was seen by the local deputies.  The deputies reported this incident to the Waddell men who then went to arrest the man under a charge of intimidation.  When they went to arrest him, the man ran into his house where there were 15 other people.  The Waddell men then opened fire on the house, claiming that there had been a shot from inside the house, and killed two men and injured three more (Meeker, 67).  This event led to a public outcry for the National Guard troops to remain in Houghton for the duration of the strike or at least until the deputies could handle the situation (“Two Dead as Result of Strike Clash at Champion Mine Early Last Night.”).  The deputies further lowered their reputation at a picket on September 2.  The National Guard had initially prevented the parade from going near the mines peacefully and the parade turned away from the mines.  A group of 15 deputies then stopped the parade as they were headed away from the mines.  After exchanging epithets with the parade, the deputies fired 90 shots into the air which struck one young girl in the head (Meeker, 70).

The change in the composition of peacekeeping troops marked a major turning point in the strike.  The mostly peaceful parades of strikers turned into violent acts from both sides of the strike (excluding the National Guard).  The deputies and Waddell men consistently acted violently toward the strikers and even beat women with clubs or night sticks on many occasions (Meeker, 74).  This in turn led to the strikers becoming more violent toward the deputies, in one case killing a deputy and in another attempting to kill a deputy.  Strikers also increased their violence toward the imported workers, often throwing rocks at their train cars and beating them on their way to work.  Overall, 38 striker men were charged with assault, 9 were charged with murder, and 56 were charged with intimidation while 8 striker women were charged with assault and 27 with intimidation.  The deputies and Waddell men had very few charges against them, mainly because they were the people issuing the charges and did not charge themselves when they were the aggressors in violent assaults (Meeker, 74).  As a result, an accurate number of the assaults on strikers by deputies is not known.

The violence lasted for the duration of the strike and increased tensions between strikers and the mines which decreased the likelihood of a settlement by the mining companies.  By late October, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had exhausted its financial resources in fighting against the companies and turned to the courts to attempt to end the strike.  The companies knew the WFM couldn’t sustain the strike much longer and rejected the offer to end the strike.  Meanwhile, the mining companies created the Citizen’s Alliance as a community group that wanted to end the violence and restore peace.  They printed a publication called Truth, which portrayed the strikers as the aggressors and the cause of the violence in the area.  At the same time, the mining companies voluntarily introduced 8 hour workdays to remaining workers in an effort to persuade strikers to abandon the strike (Lankton, 201).  These actions reinvigorated the strike and led to the worst month of the strike.  December of 1913 saw more deaths than any other month of the strike (Lankton, 202).  Most were a result of the Italian Hall disaster in which 73 WFM members were trampled to death after a false fire alarm, most of the deaths being young children.  The cause of the stampede was determined, by the strikers, to be a member of the Citizen’s Alliance yelling “fire” into the hall.  The community members collected donations to give the families affected by the tragedy, however the WFM leader rejected their charity due to his bitterness against the Citizen’s Alliance.  This infuriated community members and they forced him onto a train to Chicago (Lankton, 205).  The strike officially continued through the spring of 1914 but was over after December for all intents and purposes.

Mass Exodus of Miners

Many mine workers decided to abandon the mines all together due to the social upheaval taking place in the copper country.  They looked for work in many other disciplines and locations, most notably the Ford automotive assembly plants in Detroit.  Workers at Ford had the opportunity to make $5 a day plus a bonus plan which was much better than the $3 a day in the mines with worse working and social conditions (Lankton, 205).  These coincidental events led to a mass exodus from the mines during and after the strike, including the most experienced miners.  Replacement workers were never as experienced as those they replaced and slowed production.  The mines never recovered from the removal of experienced workers and the social divide created in the community.  They remained open into the mid-1900’s mainly due to the two world wars and the increased demand of copper for ammunition (Lankton, 207-210).

The copper strike of 1913 most likely could have been resolved with less violence and in a shorter time frame had the National Guard not been removed from the area.  In the time that the National Guard had a strong presence in the area, there were no strike related deaths.  As soon as the deputies took control the violence commenced from all sides of the strike.  The violence led to neither side wanting to settle the strike and the prolonged time scale that resulted.  Had there been no violence involved with the strike, a peaceful settlement in a much shorter time would have been likely since the relationship between the two sides would have been more civil.  The National Guard leave the Houghton area was the major turning point in the strike which could have easily been avoided.  Removing the National Guard was based on the unwarranted worries about the National Guard appearing as strike breakers and the false illusion that the local deputies could handle the situation.  The National Guard displayed great strike control skills while mobilized with their unbiased and disciplined protection of the Houghton area and should have been utilized for the entire duration of the strike.


Strikers hold a parade through Calumet, MI (“Labor Disputes-1913-1914 Strike.” Keweenaw Digital Archives)

The house where deputies opened fire on an unarmed house of WFM members after they trespassed on company property and resisted arrest. This event became known as the “Seberville Shooting.” (“Site of Seeberville Shootings.” Keweenaw Digital Archives)

Michigan National Guard is called to the Keweenaw and pitches tents near Calumet, MI. (“1913 Strike-National Guard.” Keweenaw Digital Archives)

Primary Sources

  1. Anon. “1913-1914 Strike.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Quincy Mining Company Collection. Image # Acc-400-12-13-1988-01-08-19.
  2. Anon. “1913-1914 Strike.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Quincy Mining Company Collection. Image # Acc-400-12-13-1988-01-08-28.
  3. Anon. “1913 Copper Miners Strike.” Photograph. MTU Archives. MTU Photographic Collection and Calumet & Hecla Photograph Collection. Image # MTU Neg 03861.
  4. Anon. “Copper Country Strike Scene.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Copper Country Photographic Vertical File Collection. Image # NoNeg 2013-12-09-005
  5. Anon. “Disorders in Strike Zone this Morning.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 4 Sep. 1913: 1
  6. Anon. “Displeased by Governor’s Reply.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 26 Jul. 1913: 1
  7. Anon. “Early Parade Finds Militia on the Alert.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 26 Aug. 1913: 1
  8. Anon. “Federal Mediator Seeks to Settle Calumet Strike.” Chicago Daily Tribune  31 Dec. 1913: 1
  9. Anon. “Ferris Pleased with Troops.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 29 Aug. 1913: 1
  10. Anon. “Fight Starts when Deputies Meet Strikers.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 2 Sep. 1913: 1
  11. Anon. “Governor is Coming Here to Take Charge.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 25 Jul. 1913: 1
  12. Anon. “Labor Disputes-1913-1914 Strike.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Copper Country Vertical File Photograph Collection. Image # MTU Neg 05447.
  13. Anon. “May Recall Troops Within Next 24 Hours; Sheriff’s Deputies to Handle the Situation.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 6 Aug. 1913: 1
  14. Meeker, Royal “Report of the Commissioner of Labor Statistics in regard to Strike of Mine Workers in the Michigan Copper DistrictU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 139. September 7, 1914.
  15. Nara, J.W. “1913 Strike-National Guard” Photograph. MTU Archives, Nara Photographic Collection ACC#09-038A, Image NARA 42-003
  16. Anon. “Prominent Business Men Sign Petition Asking Governor to Keep Troops Here.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 29 Jul. 1913: 1
  17. Reeder, John “1913 Strike.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Reeder Photographic Collection. Image # MS042-05-53-435.
  18. Anon. “Resume All Pumps Under Military Guard; Strikers’ Protest Fails to Impress Ferris.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 28 Jul. 1913: 1
  19. Anon. “Send Troops to all the Mines.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 26 Jul. 1913: 1
  20. Anon. “Site of Seeberville Shootings.” Photograph. MTU Archives. Collection Acc. 400 (12-13-1998), Image # Acc-400-12-13-1988-001-011-002
  21. Anon. “Troops are Neutral.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 15 Aug. 1913: 1
  22. Anon. “Troops to be Relieved of Patrol Duty.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 3 Sep. 1913: 1
  23. Anon. “Two Dead as Result of Strike Clash at Champion Mine Early Last Night.” The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 15 Aug. 1913: 1
  24. Anon. “Women Now Attack Non-Union Miners.The Calumet News [Calumet, MI] 28 Aug. 1913: 1

Secondary Sources

  1. Thurner, Arthur W. “Charles H. Moyer and the Michigan Copper Strike, 1913-1914” Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 1991), pp. 1-19
  2. Rubyan-Ling, Saronne “The Michigan Copper Strike of 1913.” History Today, Vol. 48.3 (1998), pp. 47
  3. Lankton, Larry “The Strike of 1913-1914” Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s-1990s. Great Lakes Books, 2010. 191-206.
  4. Kaunonen, Gary and Goings, Aaron Community in Conflict: A Working-Class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy. Michigan State University Press, 1st edition, 2013

Further Reading