Flashback Friday: On Top of the World

Image of log cabin building with many signs
The Skytop Inn advertising its attractions, circa 1940s.

A few weeks ago, Flashback Friday took readers to Copper Harbor’s Brockway Mountain to visit with Bill Mattila, who lived in a modest home perched atop the scenic spot for many decades. This week, we return to Brockway for a look at another staple of the mountain that has since vanished: the Skytop Inn. 

Travelers who cruise Brockway Mountain Drive almost invariably make a stop at the summit. Here, they can take in expansive views of crystalline Lake Superior, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises that paint all surfaces with gold, and, for the persistent, the Milky Way unfolding overhead and making one feel small and insignificant. Indeed, the appeal of the peak and its potential to promote automobile tourism during the Great Depression helped to secure federal funding for the construction of Brockway Mountain Drive. Numerous local men who had lost their jobs found new ones helping to clear space for the new, winding road and lay down gravel, later to be replaced with pavement. Now, motorists from the Copper Country and tourists from points beyond could cruise in their Packards and Plymouths smoothly up to the peak.

Clyde H. Wescoat–better known as Harold–saw an opportunity. A hotelier and liquor store owner in Copper Harbor, according to the 1940 federal census, he claimed Pennsylvania as his birthplace but fell in love with Michigan native Serene Ferrien, then with the Upper Peninsula. The Wescoats moved from Detroit to Escanaba sometime between 1920 and 1930, then to Houghton, and finally to Keweenaw County. Enterprising Harold seized upon the chance to buy 320 acres at the crest of Brockway Mountain. There, he built a small log cabin to serve as a gift shop. From the wraparound porch created by its support platform, or through the picture windows in the cabin itself, visitors could take in the stunning views that had prompted Harold to call his store the Skytop Inn. 

Two men working inside the frame of a log cabin
C. Harold Wescoat and a companion building the original Skytop Inn.

Visitors came by the dozens to enjoy the vista and to browse the Skytop. An early photograph of the building captured the varied offerings at the little gift shop: ice cold Coca-Cola, candy, tobacco, and souvenirs reflecting local flavor. Copper cards seemed to be popular choices for tourists, who could also secure directions and recommendations from the knowledgeable employees. 

Harold Wescoat died in Copper Harbor in July 1946, a decade after constructing the Skytop at the crest of Brockway. In the 1960s, the original log cabin came down, finding its replacement in a more modest, blue structure. The million-dollar view remained, however, and the Skytop lived on for almost fifty years longer.

Old structures of significance often meet their ends through sad ways: they fall into disrepair and disintegrate, or fire claims them, or they are wiped away to build something shiny and new. The Skytop Inn’s demise was for, perhaps, kinder reasons. The heirs of the Wescoat family wanted to ensure that the community could continue to enjoy the summit of Brockway unimpeded and that the environment would remain protected. They worked in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Eagle Harbor Township, Keweenaw Land Trust, and other nature- and community-minded organizations to broker a deal for the purchase and protect the peak from subdivision by developers. Countless individuals mailed donations to assist the township in the purchase, which became official in 2013. Not long after, the Skytop building came down, leaving a small, open field in its place. When the wind rustles the grass as you look down on Lake Superior, you wonder how many thousands of people have stood in your place at the peak of the mountain, ready to touch the sky.

Image of blue-painted wooden building on Brockway Mountain
The last Skytop Inn after it ceased operations. Photograph by the author, 2013.

Flashback Friday: Say Cheese!

Wheel of Gorgonzola cheese from the Stella Cheese Company, undated

Just in queso didn’t know, some of the staff at the Michigan Tech Archives really love cheesy puns. So for this week’s Flashback Friday we couldn’t resist highlighting a piece of cheesy Copper Country history: the establishment of the Stella Cheese Company in Baltic, Michigan.

What would later be known as the Stella Cheese Company was initially established as a farming enterprise near Superior, Wisconsin in 1917. Within a short period of time the operation outgrew the size of the farm and the company was forced to expand to its first unit at Lake Nebagamon near what is now the Brule River State Forest and named Nebagamon Cheese Company. Unfortunately, correct pronunciation of the company’s name proved tricky for its Italian owners and the name was changed to Stella. According to an article printed in the Daily Mining Gazette in 1935, the new name was derived from the Italian word for star and a “special and popular cheese called stellarosa.” As far as we can tell, the stellarosa must have been nacho ordinary cheese among the Italian community.

Daily Mining Gazette, August 27, 1935.

Stella’s big cheese was Count Guilio Bolognesi, an Italian immigrant born in 1879 in Luzzara, Italy, who controlled operations from his posh Gold Coast home in Chicago. Bolognesi’s brother, Emilio, served as secretary. Attilio Castigliano served as production manager and vice president. Himself an Italian immigrant, Castiglioano started his American life in Calumet at the turn of the 20th Century. As the business continued to grow, additional units were developed in locations such as Mass City (1929), Baraga, Campbellsport and Perkins and by 1935 Stella had grown into an installation processing 40 million pounds of milk from 10,000 cows and cooperating with roughly 2,000 farmers.

The company’s crowning achievement was the installation of its premier unit in Baltic, Michigan in August of 1935. Bolognesi prophesied that they were placing “in the hands of this district one unit” that was “destined to be the largest in the United States in the particular kind of cheese made.” Stella’s president wasn’t wrong as over the next 18 years the plant in Baltic proved that there wasn’t another unit cheddar than it.

Daily Mining Gazette, August 27, 1935.

Managed by Joseph Basso and Jacob Onkalo, the Baltic unit employed as many as 110 men and women and at its height was processing “100,000 pounds of milk into 300 22-pound loaves of Parmesan and 200 25-pound loaves of Romano in a single day.” According to a retrospective article in the Daily Mining Gazette from 1981, “in a normal year, 15 70,000-pound shipments of Parmesan cheese alone left the Stella plant.” Additionally, “as Italian cheese must be aged for nine or 14 months, South Range and Baltic would normally have as much as $2 million of cheese in its four warehouses,” though the old Baltic School, Derby Hall and South Range wine cellars were also used for storage. Cheese produced at the plant were often sold under the Kraft and Chef Boyardee labels.

The Baltic operation thrived from 1935 until 1953. By 1950, new health regulations and industry standards forced companies such as Stella’s to purchase expensive new equipment, which proved a hardship for smaller operations that fed the Stella plant. Combined with milk supply competition from Copper Country cooperatives, many plants began to close. Baltic outlasted its sister plants in Mass City and Baraga with operations funneled to Baltic. Cheese was last produced in Baltic in February 1953, though warehousing of cheese continued until 1968. Stella was sold to L. D. Schreiber Co. of Green Bay, Wisconsin and in 1963 acquired by Universal Foods.

Stella Cheese workers at the Baltic plant, 1939. Daily Mining Gazette, July 16, 1992.

We hope that you enjoyed this look back at a piece of cheese industry in the Copper Country — we think its pretty grate. Have a Gouda weekend and Labor Day!

 


Flashback Friday: Solitary but Not Alone

Man in plaid standing in front of cabin.
William “Bill” Mattila, who resided on Brockway Mountain for over thirty years, in front of his cabin.

The press called Maggie and Bill recluses and hermits, not people. 

At different times, in different parts of Keweenaw County, Maggie Harrington and Bill Mattila chose lives of solitude. Maggie kept her home in Central Mine as that community faded and her neighbors moved away. Nearly thirty years later, Bill climbed Brockway Mountain to build his dwelling. Outsiders fixed them with curious stares and peppered them with questions about their lives, their choices. Some, Maggie and Bill answered; others, they left as mysteries. Both died in the remote places they had called home just the way they lived–alone but not necessarily unhappy.

There’s much about the lives of these two people–who attracted so much fascination for their unorthodox decisions–that remains unknown. Stories swirled in their wake, built on what the two had decided to share and on the inventions of others. Bill, for one, often told reporters and visitors what they wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth of his life. But what can we say about these two people to give their legends some roots? 

Maggie Harrington was not famous in life and remains so in death, but everyone who clung to life in Central after the mine closed would have known her. Census records tell us that young Margaret Harrington and her mother of the same name, both immigrants from Ireland, had established themselves in Keweenaw County by 1870. At that time, their residence was near the Pennsylvania Mine, an area that today’s visitors would call Delaware. By 1880, they had moved down to the more prosperous Central Mine, settling on the east edge of town. Maggie was sixteen at the time. As at Delaware, she and her mother lived alone; another group of Harringtons resided a few doors down, but Maggie and Margaret formed their own household. Whether the older Margaret Harrington had ever been married or had other children is not clear. Maggie’s obituary alluded to a sister, name not given, who had wed a Mr. Michael Powers. A miner by that name did reside at Central as of 1863, when he was registered for the Civil War draft, and a peddler named Michael Powers died in Eagle Harbor in January 1871, but whether either was connected with the Harringtons remains a mystery. 

Image of town on a harbor.
Eagle Harbor in its early days. Maggie walked there often.

In September 1896, the older Margaret Harrington died at Central Mine. The town itself was fading, too. People whom Maggie would have known since childhood moved away, seeking work in the mines of Calumet, Hancock, or points farther west. A few people who had always called Central home remained, and Maggie was determined not to leave. With her mother gone, she spent much of her time alone with her thoughts. Daily, she walked the forested paths of Keweenaw County, journeying down the steep hill that led to Eagle Harbor or cutting across the woods to Eagle River. The weather did not deter a woman who had known so many Copper Country winters. When it snowed, she wrapped herself more tightly in her coat and scarf and tucked her feet firmly into her boots. Anyone who would live by herself in a town as quiet as Central had to have courage. 

And yes, people peered at Maggie, asked questions about her, whispered stories about her behind their hands. When they saw her walking along the road, motorists pulled over and offered her a ride. Sometimes, no doubt, it was out of courtesy; sometimes, it had to be curiosity. The Daily Mining Gazette said that she always immediately refused unless she knew the person; when she did accept, she seemed reluctant to agree and even more reluctant to carry on a conversation. She chose to keep her own company and to go her own way. When she died, these decisions became the cornerstone of her obituary. 

Photograph of old buildings on the hillside with fall colors.
Central Mine as a ghost town in the autumn.

One of Maggie’s long walks became her last walk in 1926. Others who normally saw her journeying about the woods or tromping past their windows noticed that the familiar figure hadn’t appeared for some days. A man who had stayed on at Central as a caretaker for the mine buildings organized a search party that eventually found Maggie’s body in a snowbank. She had apparently taken her normal long walk down to Eagle Harbor and detoured through Phoenix on her way home. For reasons unknown, as she approached Central, she changed her mind and began to walk back toward Phoenix. She passed away along the route. Later, her neighbors bore her down the state highway she had so often traversed and laid her to rest in a Catholic service. 

Maggie Harrington preceded Bill Mattila in a life of solitude in Keweenaw County, but his story overshadowed hers ever after. Unlike Maggie, Bill was willing to talk to outsiders about his retirement to Brockway Mountain–especially if they brought a package of beer to loosen his tongue. Those who came to visit often expected, wrote one journalist, “gnarled, knobby-handled walking sticks” and animal-skin robes. They thought they would greet Bill in a cave and marvel at the scraggly length of his beard. But Bill Mattila, like Maggie, was just a person who made his own untraditional choices, albeit in a spectacularly beautiful place. 

William F. Mattila was born near Baltic, Michigan, to Finnish immigrants John and Hilda (Karppinen) Mattila on July 18. The year of his birth ranges from 1914 to 1916, depending on the source consulted. In a stark contrast with the Harringtons, the Mattila family was a large one: the 1930 census said that young William had nine brothers and sisters, from oldest brother Oscar down to baby brother Sam. In subsequent interviews, the number of children grew to fourteen or more. Like so many other Finns south of Houghton, John Mattila had chosen to pursue work at the Copper Range Company and spent at least a decade in their employ. Hilda died of dysentery and kidney failure in 1930, when William was just a teenager, and not long after another son had been lost to the same illness. 

Image of mine structures with active smokestacks
Baltic, Michigan, likely near the time that Bill Mattila was born.

It seems that life became more challenging from then on: John lost his job at Copper Range during the Great Depression and took a WPA job. As adolescent William grew into adult Bill, he became a lumberjack, working the woods around Adams Township for a lumber company. And, with war on the horizon, Bill joined many young men in registering for the draft. At twenty-five, according to his draft card, he stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Long days in the woods had tanned his skin. He had hazel eyes and brown hair; he was wiry but strong at 155 pounds. He had attended school through the eighth grade. Six months later, Bill Mattila was an enlisted man, joining up in March 1941. In June 1942, the military discharged him. 

Bill later said that he worked in Detroit for a time before giving it up. He wanted “to live off the land as his grandfather had done in Finland years ago,” explained Mac Frimodig, who wrote a long tribute to Mattila in his book Keweenaw Character. His quest for simple, rugged living took him back across the Straits of Mackinac and nearly to the edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where he bought forty acres of land atop Brockway Mountain from the Department of Natural Resources. The simple cabin he constructed on a bare ridge of the property became his lifelong home–and a magnet for others. 

The story of “the Hermit of Brockway Mountain” became one of the most widely circulated in the Copper Country. Tourists watched in fascination as Bill came down the mountain each month to pick up his mail and spend his modest military pension on cat food, batteries for his radio, and the few other necessities he couldn’t catch or grow. Curiosity-seekers who came to gawk sometimes found a terse reception unless they presented Bill with a pack of Stroh’s. For them, and for the occasional journalist, he launched into a colorful description of his life–featuring both honest depictions of an unconventional man and a little exaggeration that gave them some juicy copy to write. Bill’s devotion to his long line of dogs, whom he named Bark, and his cats, whom he dubbed Meow, remained constant, as did his passion for skiing the ridges and valleys of Brockway. His reliance on his radio for entertainment and his own two hands for crafting skis, furniture, and other tools also never changed. Almost without fail, he expressed deep satisfaction with the life he had chosen and the sound of the “four winds,” not human voices, that threaded through the walls of his cabin at night. He cherished the vista and the fresh air, the sky that opened above him and his rudimentary telescope at night. Brockway Mountain was not his place of seclusion; it was a retreat that unlocked the door to a world he loved.

Image of road leading up to forested hill
Looking toward the west bluff of Brockway Mountain. Bill Mattila roamed these hills happily for decades.

Bill Mattila, like Maggie Harrington, died as he lived. He went down to Copper Harbor for a final resupply and returned to his cabin. The day that the townspeople anticipated seeing him again came and went, and those who went in search of him found that he had passed away in the home he built. With the date of his passing unknown, the official record designated it as January 1, 1985, about thirty-one years after Bill’s first summit of the mountain. His story remains deeply woven into the fabric of Keweenaw County, and the imprint he left on Brockway Mountain will always remain. 


Employment Opportunity: Join Our Team!

The Michigan Technological University Van Pelt and Opie Library is pleased to announce that it is currently hiring for a Library Assistant 4 position within the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections.
This position supports the Archives with excellent customer service, patron support, collaboration, and creative problem solving. Outstanding communication, referral, and reference services are provided through face-to-face, electronic and telephone means to library patrons, staff, local partners, and community members. High school diploma or an equivalent combination of education and experience from which comparable knowledge and abilities can be acquired is required. Apply online at https://www.jobs.mtu.edu/postings/8351 . A comprehensive list of all open positions at Michigan Tech are available at https://www.jobs.mtu.edu/postings/search

Michigan Technological University is an Equal Opportunity Educational Institution/Equal Opportunity Employer, which includes providing equal opportunity for protected veterans and individuals with disabilities.


Summer Intern Farewell

A young woman sits at a desk with a newspaper.
Gabby is still working hard, even on her last day in the archives!

We say goodbye to our Summer Intern, Gabby, as today is her last day in the archives. Over the course of seven weeks she had a major impact on our customer services and assisted with a plethora of processing and backlog projects. She was a joyful presence this summer and we are sorry to see her go. Please take a moment to hear about Gabby’s take on the experience in her final blog update.


At the risk the risk of sounding like a broken record this week, I can’t believe that my time here at the Michigan Tech Archives is almost over and that fall and a return to classes is right around the corner. While I will definitely be a little sad to leave and miss all the autumn fun*, I consider myself lucky to be able to bring home so many lovely memories from this summer- from walks down by the canal and many shared baked goods to touring the Quincy Mine after handling so many of their and other mine’s records. I apologize in advance to my friends and family back home who will be subjected to looking at all the photos that I took as well as listening to my description of pasties and how cold mines are. 

Three women are pictured in a tram car with hard hats on, preparing to descend into the mine tour.
Our intern Gabby (left) was treated to a tour of Quincy Mine by archivists Emily (center) and Allison (right.)

I have truly enjoyed my time here and have learned so much from not only my colleagues, but also from our patrons. I am walking away far more knowledgeable about mining, genealogy, and Lake Superior than I would have ever expected (look out Jeopardy and all other assorted trivia activities!) Outside of helping patrons find the information they are looking for, one of my favorite parts of this internship has been the opportunity to handle so many interesting materials from the collection. While they are all fun in their own way, some of our sports photos are particular favorites of mine- who doesn’t love a good vintage hockey action shot and/or fight photo especially if the players have great 70s and 80s hair? 

All joking aside, I would like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome here in the archives and the library as a whole. An additional thanks to our patrons who came by and were patient with someone who was new and learning the ‘archival ropes’ so to speak. This internship has been a great opportunity to gain more hands on archival experience and I can not wait to take what I have learned with me back to UCLA as I go into my second (and last!) year of my master’s program! 

*To preemptively answer: It’s inconclusive as to whether I will be as sad to miss seeing all the snow, although I may daydream about it in the midst of a late October heatwave


Flashback Friday: The Vagabond

Boats - Fishing

For many Yoopers, if you refer to the news, the water cooler chat, or your social media feeds, there is plenty of mention of seafaring vessels the past few days. Today’s Flashback Friday is a short and sweet glimpse back to a boat that is a little more my personal style.

On this day in 1958, the Jamsen fishing craft Vagabond was put out into Lake Superior with a party of Upper Peninsula Traveling Workshop instructors aboard. The image shows the boat proceeding toward fishing nets that were placed beyond the opening to Copper Harbor. Fishing workshops were common in the 1950s, and many of the expedition vessels put out into Lake Superior were no bigger than the Vagabond. There is certainly more than one way to get out and enjoy Gitche Gumee!


Call for Independent Researchers 2019

Biography - Endicott R. Lovell
A photograph of Endicott R. Lovell signing papers at a desk, circa 1940s. 

The Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections is updating its list of local historical researchers for hire. We are seeking individuals interested in providing a fee-based research service to patrons unable to travel to the Copper Country to undertake their own research projects at the Michigan Tech Archives. Although our primary interest is in supporting the use of our collections, researchers on this list may also be contacted for projects involving research at local records offices, cemeteries, and other archives.

The Archives’ only role is to maintain this listing for the convenience of our patrons unable to conduct their own research. It is up to each individual to establish their own operating procedures, manage contact with patrons, and bear responsibility for the outcome of their work. The Archives takes no involvement in setting fee schedules for this sort of research and will not include fees as part of its listing. In addition, the Archives bears no responsibility for the quality of each individual researcher’s work and reserves the right to remove listings at any given time.

Please note, the list will be posted on our website and will be publicly distributed. This list is maintained as a service to the public, and these researchers are not employed as such by the Michigan Tech Archives. 

To be included on our updated independent researcher list, please contact:

Lindsay Hiltunen
University Archivist
Michigan Tech Archives
Van Pelt and Opie Library
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, MI 49931
copper@mtu.edu
(906) 487-2505


Flashback Friday: A Disaster and Doors

Image of building facade and entryway
The Italian Hall as seen from Seventh Street.

Arguably, no event changed the Copper Country more than the 1913-1914 Western Federation of Miners strike, and no tragedy has left a deeper mark on the community than the Italian Hall disaster.

Those who grew up in Houghton County or who have studied its history know immediately what these words connote. For others, some background needs to be provided. In July 1913, members of Western Federation of Miners (WFM) locals in Michigan–dismayed by rates of pay, safety conditions, work schedules, and the introduction of new technologies that would allow the mines to reduce their workforces–elected to strike. The mining companies, including the mighty Calumet & Hecla, responded by shutting down operations; they had enough cash to outlast the union, whose coffers had run dangerously low following strikes elsewhere, and they felt secure in their position compared to the untested, newborn local unions. 

The tension everywhere in the Copper Country felt like electricity–powerful, untamable, unpredictable. Like electricity, it arced wildly at times, catching both ardent activists and innocent bystanders in its path. Strikers beat and hurled projectiles at those who had decided not to join the union. On several occasions, shots fired into private residences killed workers. After two striking miners and representatives of the Copper Range Company sparred over trespassing accusations in August, a group of hired deputies and non-striking workers descended on the roaming men’s boarding house to confront them. Tempers boiled over into gunfire, killing two men inside the structure who had had nothing to do with the dispute. In December, members of the WFM decided to send a message to “scabs” by firing a Painesdale immigrant boarding house run by the Dally family. Thomas Dally, along with non-striking boarders Arthur and Harry Jane, lost their lives. Other moments of violence punctuated the strike: a thirteen-year-old girl shot in the head near Kearsarge, a man found dead on the sidewalk in Houghton, dozens of other incidents of anger and intimidation from both sides. Many employees returned to work at the mines as they reopened, needing to put food on the table and finding the union falling short of its promises. The benefits the WFM promised to those who stayed on the picket lines couldn’t make ends meet. As Christmas approached, the strikers–and their families–needed encouragement. 

Men moving down a street in a line
Strikers parade through downtown Houghton, 1913.

The Ladies Auxiliary of the WFM organized a party to be held on Christmas Eve at the Italian Hall in Calumet. The hall itself was an elegant choice. On Seventh Street, just steps from one of Calumet’s biggest thoroughfares, the gathering place of the Societa Mutua Beneficenza Italiana sat perched above a tea shop and saloon. The building, which opened in 1908, replaced earlier incarnations that had been destroyed by a windstorm and a fire. As the families attending the party climbed the steps, they were greeted by “Georgia pine, maple flooring, and a highly ornamental steel ceiling” some eighteen feet high, as well as “a balcony… well trimmed with a neat balustrade and ornamental columns.” A stage, dressing rooms, and spaces for “lodge purposes” rounded out the amenities. The children were excited for Christmas and for presents. The parents were tired of worrying about money, about jobs, about their future in the Copper Country. A night of entertainment and relaxation in these fine surroundings wouldn’t erase their troubles, but it would take their minds off what needed to be faced after Christmas.

It all ended in tragedy. Midway through the party, someone–whose identity and motivation have never been confirmed–called out that there was a fire. Word radiated through the hall instantly. Some guests hurried down the fire escape at the rear of the building. Most attempted to evacuate through the main stairwell, the one that they had climbed from Seventh Street just a little while earlier. As the partygoers crowded onto the steps, desperately trying to flee the supposed blaze, they fell over and against each other. No one could reach the doors; the growing yet immobile mass of people before them kept the exit from reach. Slowly, more than seventy children and adults suffocated under the crush of humanity in the stairwell. 

There was no fire. 

After the disaster, Calumet grieved in a way it never had before and has not since. Undertakers ordered express shipments of caskets from beyond the Copper Country: the stock they had on hand could not meet the need for so many dozen coffins, both sturdy for adults and pitifully tiny for children. Funeral processions marched along the broad lanes of Calumet to Lakeview Cemetery, where survivors laid their loved ones to rest in mass graves and private plots. Witnesses said that the burial ground had never seen so many mourners. Families stood at the edge of the opened ground and knew that what had happened at the Italian Hall had forever changed them. It left vacant chairs around the dinner table, closets of clothes that would never again been worn, toys that would sit idle ever after. For decades after, many in the Keweenaw struggled to speak of the Italian Hall, other than to warn their children never to shout fire in a crowded place. 

People standing by caskets of various sizes
Caskets ordered for victims of the Italian Hall.

Conversations about the event, however, frequently introduced a detail that became a pervasive urban legend. Why had those fleeing the hall been unable to open the doors? “Well,” said some, “because those doors opened inward.” The theory would certainly account for much of the difficulty: if the doors needed to move into the hallway to let anyone out, the sheer number of people before them would have prevented anyone from escaping. A photograph of the entrance to the stairs that circulated afterward compounded the confusion: it showed two sets of doors, one of which appeared to open onto Seventh Street and one of which seemed, from the photographer’s vantage point, to open back into the stairwell. The myth of the inward-opening doors became firmly entrenched. After the demolition of the Italian Hall in 1984, a historic sign went up on the spot, proclaiming that this faulty design had played a role in the deaths. That sign has since been replaced. Articles in the Daily Mining Gazette in the 1980s, brief books penned by local authors, the federal Historic American Buildings Survey, and blogs about topics as diverse as Bob Dylan and Michigan history further perpetuated the tale. One can find institutions as august as Michigan State University and the Library of Congress standing by their assertion to this day. 

Documents from the time, however, point to one conclusion: the doors of the Italian Hall opened outward. The Calumet News reported in its article on the new hall–written in October 1908, long before the strike was on the horizon–that the architects and builders had been particularly emphatic about ensuring the safety of the doors. In the wake of two deadly fires (the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903 and the Collinwood School fire in March 1908) where problems with doors had been a contributing factor in nearly 800 deaths, public spaces and their exits came under particular scrutiny. The ubiquity of panic bars and doors that open in the direction of egress have their roots in these disasters. Seeking to reassure the people of the Copper Country, the Calumet News took great care to say that the new Italian Hall, its auditorium, and its businesses had been made safe. The reporter wrote, verbatim: “All doors open outward.” 

Text of newspaper article
Clip from the 1908 Calumet News showing that all doors open outward

The confusion over the photograph is easy to understand and somewhat more challenging to resolve. Architectural and archival investigation by Keweenaw National Historical Park staff, in conjunction with other historians, a few years ago concluded that the second set of doors–the ones that seemed to open inward–were almost certainly hinged double doors. These would have folded up rather than swung open, but they folded toward the street rather than toward the stairs. A blog post on the website of Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings explains this investigation in further detail and with thoughtful diagrams. 

What happened at the Italian Hall, the senseless loss of so many innocent lives, and the influence it had on the community should never be forgotten. On a beautiful summer day in 2019, we remember a cold winter night in 1913. We always will. 


Flashback Friday: Reunion Edition

Michigan College of Mines reunion picnic, 1931. (MS042-055-999-W420-8)
Happy Flashback Friday and welcome back Michigan Tech Alumni! We’re celebrating the annual alumni reunion this week with a couple of photographs from past alumni reunions.
Downtown Houghton decked out in banners for the alumni reunion, undated (MTU Neg 00338)
Michigan College of Mines alumni reunion, Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, 1936. (ACC 09-099-07-26-2010-20)
Alumni banquet, Douglass House, 1913. (Book LD3328H3-60-1)
Alumni reunion reception, 1911. (Book LD3328H3-57-5)
Group photograph of the Classes of 1959 and 1969, August 1999. (MTU004-202-12088-11)
Glen Mroz and alumnus at reunion lunch, 2009. (MTU-118-2014-10-30-027)
Alumni reunion pasty picnic, 2009. (ACC 10-010-089)

We hope that you are having a great time at this year’s alumni reunion and enjoyed this little peek into past reunions. Didn’t spot a photograph from your time here at Tech? The Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Collections invites all alumni and guests to travel down memory lane today with a visit to the archives during the campus-wide open house. The Michigan Tech Archives will be open today, Friday, August 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for our regular research hours with special behind-the-scenes tours available to individuals and small groups from 1-4 p.m. Happy reunion!


Flashback Friday: Remembering the Steamer Isle Royale

Shipwrecks - Isle Royale
The steamer at port.

Today’s Flashback Friday photograph comes to us from the Ben Chynoweth Collection. It depicts the steamer Isle Royale in all of her majestic glory. A man stands on the upper deck looking into the distance, perhaps to the place where the edge of the Big Lake meets the edge of the big sky. 

The Isle Royale foundered from a leak this week in 1885. The steamer sprung the leak about 18 miles south of Isle Royale’s Washington Harbor. Thankfully the ship became swamped but the people aboard did not. The Isle Royale began taking on water on July 25 near Susie Island on the way back to Duluth. The passengers and crew were able to safely disembark and get to the nearby island. According to some articles, the ship fully sank in the wee hours on this day in 1885.

The vessel first launched in 1879 as a cargo ship of a different name, but it was later renamed the Isle Royale after she was purchased by the Cooley-Lavaque Fishery in Duluth in 1883. After the purchase she was refitted as a double-decker passenger steamer which made regular routes between Isle Royale and Port Arthur in Thunder Bay.