Calm or Conflicted? Labor-Management Relations on Michigan's Iron Ranges in the Nineteenth Century

By Reynolds, Terry S. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Calm or Conflicted? Labor-Management Relations on Michigan's Iron Ranges in the Nineteenth Century


Reynolds, Terry S., Michigan Historical Review


On Tuesday, July 11, 1865, Frank Mills, superintendent of the Cleveland Iron Mining Company, cowered in his office near the company's mining pits outside the Upper Peninsula village of Ishpeming, scribbling a panicked, disorganized, rambling letter to J. C. Morse, the company's agent in the nearby port city of Marquette. Mills described himself as "not in a proper frame of mind," for the company's men had gone on strike and the "state of things is frightful. They are just passing the office & all have a club (I should judge 150 men) on their way to the New York Mine." (1)

Nearly thirty years later on July 3, 1894, at Ironwood, Michigan, the Norrie Mining Company, represented by fifteen nonstriking workers who were protected by fifteen deputies, attempted to use steam shovels to load iron ore from a company stockpile, only to be surrounded by a mob of around fifteen hundred striking miners. A mining captain, seeking to determine if there was an escape route, was hit by a rock. He rolled down an embankment and was fired upon as he lay at the bottom, which caused both sides to begin shooting. No one was killed, but six men were wounded; one man had part of his ear shot off, and another had a bullet furrow across his forehead. Within five minutes, deputies and nonstriking workmen were "obliged to fly for their lives." The miners then marched to downtown Ironwood, threatening to hang both the people who had attempted to operate the steam shovels and the hastily deputized officers who had tried to protect them. These events prompted Gogebic County's sheriff to ask Michigan's governor to send militia companies from outside the area to restore law and order. When the militiamen arrived on July 4, they were met at the station by strikers whom the soldiers had to force back with fixed bayonets. (2)

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These images of labor-management conflict in the iron mines of Michigan's Upper Peninsula certainly fit the general picture painted by most historians of growing levels of labor violence in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (3) However, a number of commentators from that era paint a much different picture of labor-management relations on Michigan's iron ranges.

In 1894, a few months before the Ironwood strike, Charles H. Morse, Michigan's Commissioner of Labor Statistics, declared that no mining region in the United States "was more prosperous or contented" than Michigan's iron-ore-mining region. He noted "the almost entire absence of strikes or labor dissensions" as "conclusive proof that the relation between employer and employe [sic] was agreeable even unto cordiality." (4) A decade later Horace Stevens, a special agent for the state Bureau of Labor who was investigating Michigan's Upper Peninsula mining regions, asserted that relations between employers and employees in Michigan's mining fields were "dose and cordial." (5) A host of other writers made similar assertions. (6) Historian Stewart Holbrook, writing retrospectively about the region in 1946, treated the matter more gingerly, but he still suggested that labor-management relations were relatively peaceful on the Michigan iron ranges, even if not always amiable. (7)

Given these discrepancies, how should one characterize labor-management relations on Michigan's iron ranges in the nineteenth century: calm or conflicted? Were the violent strikes of 1865 and 1894 aberrations? Were relations otherwise generally cordial, as claimed by several of Michigan's Commissioners of Labor, as well as others knowledgeable about Michigan iron mining? (8)

To provide a basis for answering these questions, I began several years ago to gather data on labor disturbances in Michigan's iron mines from the beginning year 1855, when the opening of the canal at Sault Ste. Marie enabled the first commercial shipments of iron ore to leave the region, through the end of 1904, fifty years later. …

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