Calumet, MI: From Prosperity to Poverty
When it comes to Michigan history, there is an abundance of information, inventions, and towns that helped truly build the Great Lake State into what it is today. Though these towns and industries were so vital in the foundation of Michigan, time isn’t always kind. Calumet, Michigan was once considered the epicenter of Michigan's mining industry, now this town is considered one of the poorest in America.
Established as Red Jacket in 1864, originally named after the Native American Chief of the Seneca Tribe, then renamed Calumet in 1929; this small town in the Northernmost regions of Michigan would experience prosperity for the state and tragedy as a community. Due to the richness of this regions copper mines this isolated community quickly rose to fame when it began to supply over half of the United States copper between 1871 and 1880. By 1900 workers had traveled from Poland, Croatia, Finland, etc. to work the “never-ending” mines, making the local population rise to approximately 5,000 in just a few years.
With so many cultures and backgrounds entering the region, the people and culture of Michigan's U.P. grew to what we now refer to as “Yoopers". As many know, the pasty is the biggest food to define the U.P. The reason for this being with a mixture of meat, potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, and onions all mixed into a nicely wrapped meal for miners to take on their long work days; making this food the backbone of Michigan's mining industry.
1913 Tragedy Strikes
Though the town had been thriving with their copper sales a decade prior, the hard labor, paternalism in the mines, and low wages caused the workers to strike on July 24th, 1913. Demanding fairer wages and less scrutiny so unexpectedly resulted in the National Guard mobilizing to diffuse the situation. Within 24 hours this small region of the U.P. had troops moving inward, but would face struggles of trying to oversee the twenty mines in operation for the area with approximately 14,000 employees on strike. With limited troops, the strike would continue for eight long months and come to a contradictory resolution. Though the workers received a shorter work week and higher wages, the mining companies would never be recognized as a union.
With the strike being five months in, the small town gathered at the local Italian Hall on December 24th, 1913 to celebrate the years Christmas season together in hopes of lifting community spirits. Until someone yelled fire. The panic that ensued in the hall at that very moment led to the deaths of seventy-three people, fifty-nine of whom were children with the youngest at the age of two. There was no fire.
Theories say the person that yelled fire was an anti-union member, but no one was ever charged with the crime. It is still considered the largest mining-related disaster to have ever occurred in Michigan. The fact it occurred above ground and the majority of deaths were children added an additional layer of heartbreak to this already struggling community. To this day, the Calumet Rotary Club holds a memorial and lights seventy-three luminaries along the walkway to today’s standing arch where the building they died once stood.
An End to Calumet Hecla Mining Co.
By the 1960s, “Copper Country” had officially supplied 95% of the United States copper. In 1968 the Calumet Hecla Mining Co. closed their doors, putting the majority of the region out of work and into financial ruin. Populations dropped when workers quickly fled the area and the economy began to drastically decline. With little hope looking forward, the community decided to look back and try to establish a National Park to capitalize on the mining history and tourism of the U.P. This led to the founding of the Keweenaw National Historic Park, which is a public-private partnership with the National Park Service, that allows local ownership to maintain lands and historical relevance in addition to federal and state ownership. Being able to establish land and buildings with historic relevance gave the opportunity to capitalize on tourism along with revenue from local Universities is what ultimately saved the region from true dismantlement.
Today, Calumet is still considered one of the poorest townships in the United States. Though the town's community is one to truly admire, the recent damage from the 2018 floods and lack of tourism from Covid-19 in 2019 and 2020 has caused both population numbers and financial numbers to continue to decrease. A town that would have been Michigan’s state capital, but lost by a single vote, holds strong against any and all odds; but how long can a small community handle this much struggle?