Studying History

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Student: I learned about something interesting in school yesterday. In 1913, thousands of miners in Michigan's Copper Country went on strike against the mining companies. They refused to work until they were granted shorter workdays, more pay, and safer working conditions. Mine owners and managers were determined not to give in. They thought if they gave what the strikers demanded, the bosses would lose power and the company would lose money. There was violence and even death during the strike. Everyone was affected by the standoff, including women and children. I'd like to find out more because it is the history of where I live. So I'm going to the archives. When I'm arriving at the archive building a nice woman working there introduced me to Professor Lankton. Hi. My name is Larry Lankton I was a history professor at Michigan Tech and I used to teach a class: I tought it for over 30 years on the history of the Copper Country Maybe I can help you out. Do you want to sit down and talk about what you are interested in? Student: Yeah, that'd be great! Lankton: Good, let's do it. The whole art of being an historian is asking a question. and then the follow-up art is... I got a good question. Now where do I look? So here in the archives, for instance, we've got all those things I've talked about. We can learn about the strike by looking at photographs, by looking at strike bulletins, by looking at posters put on the wall. We come up with the questions then we try to find a source for the answers. That's what makes doing history fun because you get to play detective. So let's do that for a while. Okay? Student: uh huh. Why did the strike happen? The strike happened because a lot of people who worked here weren't happy with their companies They didn't like their wages, they didn't like their work, they didn't like they way they were bossed around, they didn't like the way certain ethnic groups were treated, and so they just wanted to stand up to their companies and try to change them and to make life better for them. What was it like to work in the mines in 1913? It wasn't very good. It wasn't very pleasant. I don't think you, or most modern Americans would want to work in the mines like they were back then. The work, for one thing, was very hard. It's difficult labor to work in the mines. It's difficult, it's dirty, it's often damp down there. The mining work is also hazardous. 1 out of 3 people, who worked in the Michigan mines here in around 1913, got injured on the job badly enough to have to take time off. And in terms of deaths, 1 out of every 200 men underground died in the mines every year. That added up to 1 man per week dying in the mines. How were kids and families affected by the strike? Well, everybody up here was affected by the strike. There were a lot of people in the community that supported the strike. particularly the people who actually worked in the mines as miners and trammers. People who worked underground supported the strike. People who worked above the ground, typically didn't support the strike. So, families got involved in this. They've simply got a lot more tension in their lives. Day to day lives got affected by events of the strike. Of course, you had the Italian Hall Disaster, where we had 74 people killed on Christmas Eve in a stampede down the stairs at Italian Hall. That was supposed to be a celebration for strikers, but ended up as the greatest tragedy that ever happened in the Copper Country. There was no way a family could not be affected by that sort of thing happening up here. It was going to touch them all in one way or another. We've covered the striker's perspective, but what was the company's? They really didn't want a lot of labor trouble up here. But on the other hand, they wanted to keep a union out. They wanted the one man drill to come in which would reduce labor costs for them and so on. But the overarching perspective of the companies was that we don't necessarily want a strike, but if these guys call a strike, we're going to win. From their perspective they had to keep the union out. And why? Because these were companies that were used to pretty much ruling the Copper Country on their own. And they thought that they absolutely had to keep the union out to keep costs down and to get the one man drill into place so they could start eliminating workers and get to a leaner meaner kind of workforce. That's what the companies wanted going in and that's ultimately what they ended up getting at the end of the strike. In the end, did the strikers get what they wanted? No. The strikers got a little bit. They got a shorter workday. During the middle of the strike, they reduced the workday from 9 hours to 8. But they didn't force their way on the companies in terms of keeping out technologies that would make men unemployed. They did't get the raise in pay they wanted. They got a little bit of a modified procedure for settling grievances or problems that men would have with their company But on the whole, the strikers got beated very badly on the strike. Their union, the Western Federation of Miners, got beaten very badly in this strike. And it essentially caused that union to go bankrupt and rendered it uneffective in future labor disputes. Mining was a dangerous occupation. Nevertheless, many men took great pride in their work as miners. And if they didn't exactly enjoy it, they at least got pride out of the fact that they worked under difficult conditions and they provided for their families. For a long time, the mining companies had a good reputation as employers. They provided housing, they built libraries, they built schools, they helped build churches, They provided about 15 to 17 thousand jobs, but the strike brought that to an end. Student: the strike of 1913 to 1914 was a difficult time in the Copper Country. Some people say it was the most challenging time in our area's history. People fought for the things they believed in and for fair treatment. Everyone in the community was affected by the strike, not just miners and managers. I think everyone had an opinion about who was right, and who was wrong. I found answers to many of my questions by going to the archives and studying newspapers, photographs, and other records from the time of the strike. It's important to study these because they were created by the people who were there participating in the strike and witnessing it first hand. I also learned a lot by talking to Professor Lankton. Historians like him study original documents to answer their own questions about the strike and you can too, just like I did. Some of my questions might never be answered, but I can still think about everything I've read and learned and come up with my own idea about what happened In the end, I have to wonder. What would I have done during the strike? What would you do if you thought you were being treated unfairly?

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7 minutes, 55 seconds

Learn about the 1913-14 Copper Country strike with Megan, a local middle school student, and Professor Emeritus Larry Lankton. In 2014, as the strike’s centennial commemoration came to an end, Keweenaw National Historical Park produced an independent film about the strike with a local design student from Finlandia University.The eight-minute film follows Megan as she strives to learn more about the tumultuous event that took place throughout the Keweenaw’s copper range, including her hometown. On her quest, she is guided by her teacher to history professor Larry Lankton, who helps Megan learn about the strike by investigating primary sources and key strike locations. The film is geared toward grades 5-12 and features strike locations throughout Houghton County, and was a collaborative effort between local educators, archival institutions, historians, National Park Service staff, the film producer and director, and Megan the student herself. The result is a close look at primary sources, the importance of perspective, and how the past can inform our understanding of current events.


Last updated: June 26, 2022

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