Flashback Friday: Calumet Rises from the Ashes

Smoke wafting from a shafthouse
Smoke rises from Osceola No. 3 during the 1895 fire.

The history of Calumet is a history of fire.

Each blaze in the village and its surroundings has been a tragedy, changing lives and claiming homes, businesses, gathering places, and houses of worship. The latest fire, which displaced dozens when it destroyed three buildings constructed between 1880 and 1900, is another part of a long and sad litany of these events. It would be nearly impossible to name each inferno and describe all of the marks it left on the town; it would be unwise to try to grade fires on the basis of their impact on individuals. Nevertheless, several fire incidents of a century ago stand out for their scale and evidence of Calumet’s perennial resilience.

From the earliest days of Calumet, when men carried candles into the mines and wood-burning stoves fueled every home, structures fell prey to flame. An 1870 fire, said to have come “from the bushes” around Red Jacket–as the infant town was known then–destroyed some two-thirds of its buildings. The people rebuilt rapidly, encouraged by Calumet & Hecla’s potential. C&H itself, along with its competitors, faced the threat of inferno on a dismally regular basis. Timber placed underground to shore up mine workings burned easily unless kept damp, endangering employees and halting mining operations until firemen could wrestle the blaze under control. Oxygen providing fuel for the flames flowed extensively through a mine’s honeycomb of stopes, shafts, and levels, as well as the branches that connected it with other mines. Smoke also moved easily throughout these passages, preventing firemen from approaching the blaze in the days before breathing apparatuses. Companies like C&H resorted to closing fire doors, sealing off entrances, and pumping steam and carbonic acid gas to starve the blaze.

Smoke surrounding mine buildings
One of the 1880s fires at Calumet & Hecla.

Fighting the fire in this way took weeks, if not months, and the process was capricious. A fire that began in the Hecla No. 2 shaft in early August 1887 kept the entire main branch of C&H’s operations closed into the autumn, according to Larry Lankton’s Cradle to Grave. In November of that same year, another fire broke out, once again shutting down most C&H’s operations, outside those at South Hecla, for a solid six months. The following November, flames were spotted in the workings of Calumet No. 3. C&H employees quickly shut fire doors to limit its spread, but this effort trapped eight men underground. Each time the company tried to unseal the shafts, a fresh flow of air reignited the blaze. Only in the spring of 1889 did C&H get back to work. Sometime later, recovery efforts brought the eight deceased men’s bodies up to the surface. They had asphyxiated.

Smoke, more than the fire itself, was the biggest danger to Calumet’s underground workers. An 1895 fire in Osceola, outside the proper boundaries of Red Jacket, illustrated the risks only too painfully. Late in the morning of September 7, men on the 27th level of the Osceola No. 3 shaft discovered a small blaze that they tried to put out with nearby buckets of water. A mining captain rode up to the surface to fetch a hose that he would connect to a pump and fight the fire; when he attempted to return underground through the adjacent No. 4 shaft, he found it was already impassable due to smoke. Although No. 4 generally carried fresh air into the Osceola workings, the fire in No. 3 had gained ground so rapidly that the flow of air reversed. While men rode skips out of the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 shafts to safety, the headway the smoke had gained and a delay by some of the No. 4 men in evacuating proved deadly.

Group of people gathered around a wooden shafthouse
Relatives and friends of men at work in Osceola No. 4 gathered around the shafthouse during the fire, fearing the worst.

Family members and neighbors worried by the growing plume of smoke rising over Osceola gathered around the two shafts, praying that their worst fears wouldn’t be realized. When it seemed sadly evident that no more workers would ride rescue skips out of the mine, Osceola’s superintendent ordered first the No. 3 shaft sealed, then the remaining ones a day later, trying to snuff out the flames. When, at last, the fire was extinguished and recovery efforts began underground, they revealed the bodies of thirty men and boys. All died along levels of the No. 4 shaft from smoke inhalation, like their peers at C&H in 1888. The Osceola fire was the greatest mining tragedy to occur in the Copper Country and second only to the Italian Hall disaster in terms of local lives lost.

Even as the people of Calumet faced the threat of fire at work, they confronted it in their lives away from the mines. In 1902, the village’s growing Slovenian population lost its church to a late night blaze. All Catholics in Red Jacket and Laurium had once worshipped at the same parish, Sacred Heart (which would itself burn in 1983); as the community diversified and grew, however, ethnic parishes emerged, allowing parishioners to hear homilies in their native tongues and gather with those of shared background. Slovenians of the area constructed their church at Oak and Eighth, entrusting it to the patronage of St. Joseph, and it was dedicated by Bishop Vertin of Marquette in 1890. The congregation flourished, supporting a full schedule of Masses and a substantial population of fraternal and service organizations.

Wood-frame church surrounded by people on a dirt road
The old St. Joseph Catholic Church before the fire.

On December 8, 1902, the people of St. Joseph’s gathered for Mass in celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a high feast on the Catholic liturgical calendar. A short time after Mass had ended and the congregants had dispersed, someone looked up to see tendrils of smoke curling from the church’s belfry. Despite a prompt response by the fire department, within two hours the cross from the roof lay, undamaged, in a vacant lot where it had fallen, and the people of the congregation clustered sorrowfully around the remains of their church. “Sorrowfully the Slovenians viewed the ruins but they did not lose faith,” wrote a parishioner in a booklet celebrating the golden anniversary of St. Joseph’s. Permitted by St. Mary’s, the Italian church a few blocks away, to use their basement for Masses in the interim, the people quickly determined to rebuild their beautiful St. Joseph’s better than before. By the first months of 1903, a fundraising process had been organized and pledges collected. The parish laid its Jacobsville sandstone cornerstone in the summer and valiantly worked away for the next five years until a double-spired church proudly stood where fire once raged. St. Joseph’s, now known as St. Paul the Apostle, remains one of the largest, most beautiful, and most active structures in Calumet.

The rebuilt St. Joseph Catholic Church, a beautiful sandstone structure bespeaking Calumet’s determination to recover.

Despite loss of life, economic strain on families when mines closed for firefighting, and the ruin of places full of memories, Calumet endured. People looked out for the neighbors and gave generously to those in need. They banded together to rebuild, pledging money, time, and unending effort to rebuild the village in 1870, St. Joseph’s in the early 1900s. They walked down to Osceola No. 4 to support those whose loved ones were underground and comforted them when their desperate hope turned to mourning. 

For decades before anyone ever coined the term, our neighbors have been Copper Country strong. Calumet has always refused to be reduced by fire. We can be sure that this time is no different.

Many thanks to Madison Degnitz, a student assistant in the archives, for contributing research on the history of Calumet fires to this blog post.


One Comment on "Flashback Friday: Calumet Rises from the Ashes"

  • Bailey The Merchant
    June 4, 2021 at 9:11 pm

    This sad tale of death and destruction is a sobering reminder of how fragile life really is.The latest Calumet fire though not life claiming is the latest reminder of how man’s efforts fall short . Thank you to the author for not allowing those deaths to go unremembered.It would not hurt for all of us to take a short time out to honor their memory. Though a sad tale it does show how amazing the Copper Country really is and how it is able to bounce back!