View Full Version : Article from Seura, 1988

21-09-16, 18:04
In early 1988, the Finnish weekly magazine Seura wrote a series of articles on Finnish immigrants to America. My grandfather was the subject of one of those articles. About 6 months ago I was able to get a scanned copy of it from the publisher and with the miracle of Google Translate, I was able to get it into English and clean it up a bit to make it more readable. Here it is...

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William Pelto, 85, was united with the underground. The copper mines killed hundreds of Finnish immigrants for more than a century. The mine’s managers didn’t care: the trains simply brought in more workers to go into the mines. The Finns revolted and organized a strike, which the Michigan National Guard crushed in 1913. However, William Pelto rose from the mines alive and healthy after nearly 50 years of work. He is an example of the Finnish worker, a superman of the copper mines.


The Finns have a tendency to resort to a ritual of working through the plight of their circumstances in life. Many enjoy music. Refuge in God reverberates powerfully when their fate is unknown. The songs they sing bring comfort.

What did the Finns who emigrated to America sing in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

The song was at least brave.

Laiva pieni
Sinne itseni lastaan
Kun Suomi ei jaksa elättää
Näin köyhän mamman lasta

The second wave of immigration happened out of debt. Enlightenment philosophers’ ideas of natural selection through effective work had taken hold in Finland and now it affected 160,000 families. In the rural areas the population began to increase in a race of population against space.

Individual ownership of land came to a halt and a shortage of workers grew. Peasantry affected poor farmers. Tenant farmers, marginalized people, young men and women, landless farmers' children, urban laborers, and others left by the wayside heard America's call. Although slavery was prohibited in America, work with lumber and rail companies called out to marginalized people from the North.

That call was answered.

During those decades America took in 300,000 people from Finland. It was a huge blow to the home country.

And the Finnish singing went on. When ships drifted through storms of the Baltic, arrogant Swedish-speaking sailors expressed their astonishment. A future class and ethnic divide was already showing on the ship as some sang, while others played cards.

In the period of 1892-1921, 12 million people made their way from Europe to America. Finns were classified in New York's Ellis Island immigration inspection as migrant Russians. The Finns themselves could not properly know how to explain who they were: independence was still far away.

When reading the history of immigration, it is interesting to see who came to America in addition to Finnish. Almost all were from similar downtrodden countries. Among the groups arriving in America were Irish freedom fighters, the heroes of Hungary, anarchists from Russia, socialists from Germany. They were of the same ranks as day laborers from Himanka and Töysä.

One man not only talked to us about his experiences. It fired him up immediately to remember.


A story tells of a Finnish man, who was asking about work in New York. Someone would ask in English:
"Where do you want to go?"

The Finn, not knowing English, didn’t understand the question and asked:
"Minnes ota?" (“Can you take me?”)

And that’s how he ended up in Minnesota.

But many of the tens of thousands of people got to where they wanted to go, where Finnish immigrants and American capitalism saw more severe clashes take place: Copper Island.

The Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, in the northern part of the state, seems like an extension of Finland. Lake Superior’s copper-colored waves affect it in the winter, but in summer it resembles the homeland more closely. When seeing it, one would think that it is a Finnish landscape. Still, the new colonists moved there, where there was work. And on Copper Island there was plenty.

Copper was valuable on the world market and mining was heavily financed and invested. The future World War would take place using copper bullets.

The entire peninsula had holes like cheese. The deepest mine shafts extended as much as three kilometers underground, and their products went to places well beyond Lake Superior. Ore wagons that were loaded with two and a half tons weren’t moved by mules in America-- rather by the Finnish, but they did not fight it.

Kuparihelvetti-- Copper Hell-- the Finnish called it. And in the end, it destroyed them.

When the wool coat clad Finn descended from the train station in Hancock, he was easy to spot. And upon arrival he was always greeted by the other Finnish. Waiting hours on a train was better than waiting forever in Finland.

Finnish migrants were interviewed by a mine’s boss and then taken to a boarding house, where they were ushered to the second floor. Simple beds were lined up in the stale air; Finns for some reason shunned the opening of windows. They were given a candle lamp, a helmet and a pick axe, and it was off to the mine. That's how it went upon arrival.


Blue and red pigments painted the depressed mining village, and real estate value only appreciated. But if the city had ten businesses, there were at least twenty taverns.

In the fight between churches, jobs, and the taverns, migrant souls were often won by the taverns. There were hearty meals for working men: potatoes, pork, and rye bread. Sunday was turkey or chicken. Vegetables were rarely eaten.

Life was tedious. The mine's whistle signaled shifts, and at the end of they day they returned, with their sleeves rolled up expecting their food. Work in the mines was terrible drudgery. Gases burned lungs, collapses killed, and liquor was the main relief.

The mine was a scary place. When the Finnish began working in the shafts, bosses said simply that the Finnish did not matter. If some died, ships and trains brought them more from overseas. In 1900, 63 Finnish miners were killed in an accident in Utah, and a Wyoming collapse in the summer of 1903 left 169 dead. Of them, 93 were Finnish, the vast majority being new arrivals who had just entered the workforce.

Underground disasters weren’t the only violent ends. Life in the mining village was such that all were carrying weapons, and all the ethnic groups were up in arms against each other. Sharp words emerged in whiskey-influenced speech and bad feelings often boiled over even among Finns.

And here too the Finns rose up against their foreman. But instead of the lord of the manor, they were greeted by now Rockefeller, Astor, Guggenheim, Gould, Sagen, Vanderbilt, and Morgan: American capitalism was coarse. And slowly, Finns disappeared.

It was a bitter struggle.


Still living here in America’s Ivalo is 85-year-old miner William Pelto. His modest house is located on a rocky road a few kilometers from the Calumet ghost town. A couple of hundred meters away is the mine from which William rose for the last time to enter retirement.

He came out from there on his own. Many of his peers were carried out on a stretcher, or chunks of them were collected in bags after an explosion or collapse.

We met Pelto for the first time in Calumet, at a small cafe. I arranged for an interview the next day.

"I don’t know much," said William Pelto. "I’m just an old man who spent his life underground."

But he knew.

William Pelto is a living memorial of the tenacity, stubbornness, and strength, which the Finns became famous for throughout the Keweenaw area. He is like one who fought the devil himself, and rose covered in soot from the underground and didn’t die. But the mine tried its hardest.

The next day we drove down the dirt road to meet Pelto. Mrs. Mamie Pelto, maiden name Wälitalo, met us at the door. The Peltos got married in 1932.

"We dated five years," laughed William Pelto. "And I won over Mamie because I had a car, even during the Great Depression."

"Yes, it was also because you had a phonograph," said Mamie Pelto. "I went to your family's house to listen to Hiski Salomaata, Alfred Tanner, and Erikson."

Erikson was among the first Finnish immigrants to sing on an American record. The Peltos could not recall his first name.


We begin by photographing the last mine building near William's house. The old man takes a sharp-ended stick, as the weather is icy.

"This where I spent the last 22 years of my career," says Pelto, standing still and looking over the snow-covered slag piles. The mine hoist has already dilapidated, as copper has not been raised in years. Trees have grown several meters out of slag piles.

Pelto was known for his strength. The rock house next to the mine was 30 meters high. When Pelto was 65 years old, some of the younger miners tried to throw a stone over the building. No one could do it.

"I threw it over," said William. "I've always had a good arm in ballgames."

Men were difficult to keep working in the hell of the mine. Letters home often had ticket money or descriptions of life in the western world, but no one really wanted relatives or friends subjected to the same kind of hell. Censored by black bars, letters back to Finland left a lot to the imagination.

Sociologists have studied paternalism via the early capitalists in American society. William Pelto experienced it first-hand.

He remembers how managers bribed inspectors, authorities, and governing bodies, skirted the laws, deceived, extorted, received benefits, gambled and stole public funds, sold worthless bonds, speculated, and acted pious through it all. They provoked the workers, spied on them, divided them, and persecuted labor leaders. Pinkerton’s infamous gun hounds-- as the Finns called these "detectives"-- were always ready to break strikes.

"I remember those Pinkerton gun hounds," said Pelto. Looking off distantly, the old man's gaze flashed a fire.

Paternalism over the Finns was born out of a belief that working people need boundaries set for them. Since the days of Plato, paternalistic slave drivers believed they were looking out for the good of their slaves. Paternalism’s roots in Michigan were founded in the 1870's. The Calumet and Hecla copper mines were the testing grounds with the Finns as the subjects.

Mining baron Alexander Agassiz wrote: "We cannot be dictated to by anyone. The mine must stop, even if it stays closed forever… Wages will be raised as we see fit and at no other time (if they don't like it, they must go and get employment elsewhere)."

But not knowing the language, where else could the Finns go?

They toiled day and night in the darkness, drilled holes, dug tunnels, extracted ore, and increased the industry’s market. The courts could say that there is nothing to stop the Hecla mining companies. Feigning ignorance, the managers would just call a lawyer.

"In my day, the mines killed hundreds," said Pelto. "I remember how my friend died next to me, crushed by a skip. The skip came down at 30 miles per hour, and he was below. I collected his parts, I tied them together with wire and sent them up. Work continued."

How did William Pelto’s journey end up here on Copper Island?


"Dad came here about 1909," said Bill Pelto. "A while later, he sent money to Tervola for us to travel and we left with the rest of the family.

"I remember that it was June. The Kemijoki river was flooded. We went by horseback to Rovaniemi, and by boat to Kemi from there. Our ship took us to England and then to Quebec in Canada. We came to Hancock on July 4, America's Independence Day. My parents had a total of 11 boys and 4 girls. I am the last surviving child.

"The first English phrase I learned was 'Jesus Christ.' The station was assisted by a black man. In my life I had never seen one. He looked at my feet, which were covered in mud and exclaimed, "Jesus Christ!" We could not afford shoes.

"So boots were the first thing we bought."

Bill got a job at the mine as an assistant to the men at the age of fifteen in 1917.

"I was not afraid of the pits, we had been there already with our own candles with my friends during expeditions.

"Trammers had to push and push wagons, which had 2.5 tons of ore. Using mules was against Michigan laws against cruelty to animals. I did not start as a trammer, but was an errand boy and I got two bucks a day. A pie cost at that time 11 cents, as did a tobacco box. The Kaleva Cafe got a nickel every time I visited.”

Kaleva Cafe is still the center of Hancock. It is a lively meeting place for the Finns.

"The dollar was a lot of money then."

Bill’s father had rented a house on 40 acres of land.

"It was a great place. We had our own butter because Mother took care of a pair of cows.”

The ore was exported to Germany and Russia-- they were big buyers. Bill was working with Franklin Mining Company and learning to push the ore wagons.

"Soon after, I had to push. The work was difficult." Bill moved 30 tram loads a day, 75 tons of ore during 8 hours. "It got me three bucks a day."

Most likely, we would not be here talking with Bill if he had continued as a trammer. After this, he was an assistant carpenter because he was good with a saw. Many Europeans did not have this skill.

"I spent 35 years as the mine’s timberman, sometimes a carpenter." Retirement came for Bill in 1963 and the mining company began to pay him a pension after 46 years of working.

Guess how much Bill gets each month from that pension after the long days of work for the mining company.

$29. Just 120 markka.


The company had tough rules. If a miner rented a house, he had to work underground. If he was killed, the family got to live in the house through the next summer, then had to leave. When the mines switched to one-man drills in 1911 to replace the former two-man drills, the workers had no say in the matter, even when that machine made jobs scarce. If a collapse came and cries for help went out, the nearest man could be hundreds of meters away. Finns became part of the landslide, sacrificed alone in the darkness of the rock and ore.

The revolt began in the Rockland mining village on July 4, 1906, at the Temperance Society’s White Rose Festival. Climbing on a podium, the Western Association of Miners representative began to provoke a strike.

Of the 300 Michigan mine workers, 283 went on strike. The scabs then came with police protection, and the fight began, with guns drawn on both sides. Police shot and killed Ludvig Ojalan and Oskari Lehtosen. They were the first Finnish victims of what would become a long and bloody rebellion.

The Irish and British miners opposed the strike. In fact, they were of the opinion that all of the Finns should be eliminated from the workforce. The strike turned out to be a woeful display of Finnish defiance with little to no organization, a spontaneous attempt to improve conditions. And it suffocated in its own blood.

Strikes moved to Minnesota with a large percentage of the 45,000 workers walking out. Finns marched gloomily from mine to mine, urging those still employed to join in. Employers responded with weapons and scabs. Immigrants from Montenegro came to work the mines, once again guarded by police. The Finns’ strike amounted to nothing.

The strikes were brutal. International Workers of the World (IWW or Tuplajuu, as the Finns called it) was developed by Russian syndicalists and anarchists in an attempt to impact executive management. They promised that for every miner killed, they would kill one police officer, or Cossack as the Russians were accustomed to say. The group immediately gave them a strong front.

"To hell with voting for tricks and empty promises,” said the miners.


Copper Island became the boundary in the battle of striking Finns. As Bill Pelto remembers, it was still not bad to be on strike at the height of the battle.

"The companies had already separated between Houghton and Hancock, trying to get the Finnish to stop the strikes," said Pelto. "But still the strikes happened."

More than 80 percent of the island’s copper miners were displaced, and more than a third of them Finnish. Almost all the remaining employed Finns were forced into the burdensome trammer job. A 1400 kg wagon, which might have been loaded with 2.5 tons of ore had to be pushed alone hundreds of meters, sometimes even uphill along uneven rails.

Here, too, misery was put into song. This was the trammer’s song:

Syvyyksissä alla maan olen työssä toimien.
Sieli lykiskelen kaaraa mä eestä voimien.
Nimeni on trammari työn arvon mukahan
On sekin tyhjää parempi.
Trammari ei nureksi ei sure vaivojaan.
Mälliänsä pureksii ja laulaa laulujaan.
Holvit kaikki humajaa kun sieliä lauletaan.
Laulu reipas kumajaa povessa mustan maan.

"The company had to have workers," recalled Bill Pelto. "House rents were cheap at least, and we had coal for fuel. The company dug it from Pennsylvania. They used trade credits to receive food. But I worked every day, the company did not have any paid vacation. College cost so much that I could never go on holiday."

Now his son is an electrical engineer and his daughter is married. They have three grandchildren, too.


The company did not respond to a letter written by workers in 1913, which called for better working conditions. Thus, a strike began on July 22, 1913, joined by 14,500 men.

Finnish willingly fought back to subdue the armies: to Copper Island came two artillery regiments, two cavalry, an engineer company, the three regiments of infantry, and two ambulance companies-- a total of 211 officers and 2354 men from the Michigan National Guard. In defense, the Finns put up 1700 men.

The gun hounds arrived. "They were exceedingly brutal," recalled Pelto.

More than any others, the Pinkertons angered the Finns as they continued their struggle. Finnish died as victims to the gun hounds. Their way of laying siege was simple: shoot at a whole house, and their target will die. The Finns responded with firearms as well. Scabs were shot in their beds.

Employers said that it was only the Finns fighting. They were visible, always marching at the forefront of the strike processions. The strike often would see a parade of 10,000 people.

The companies tried to negotiate with the Finns. The houses were excluded from talks. The employers tried to break the Finnish efforts but the Finns were aware of the attempts. When strike breakers came through at night, they were met by dozens of rifle barrels pointed their way.

The church announced its opposition to violence, but when the employees could no longer afford to tithe, the churches became zealous in condemning the strike.


The most bitter phase of strike was a terrible accident in Calumet, which commemorates the migrants’ fight. Bill Pelto would never forget it.

On Christmas Eve 1913 the Western Federation of Miners held a Christmas Party at the Calumet Italian Hall, gathering hundreds of children and their parents. Santa Claus joined in the fun and gifts were shared. The atmosphere gave the bleak strike a delightful counterbalance.

"Then came the shout that there was a fire."

The fire had been false. But who could be sure? Celebration turned into terrifying panic. The doors had been blocked from opening. The screaming crowd filled the banquet house stairs. Children were trampled to death.

"A father rescued his daughter by keeping her raised in his arms at the top," said Bill Pelto. "At the same time, his second daughter at his feet was trampled to death."

Firefighters reached the building through the second story windows. There was no fire. They counted 74 people dead. 56 of them were children. And 47 of them Finnish.

The fire is believed to have been called out by a strike breakers’ hired man. He had disappeared as soon as the scene unfolded.

The news of the accident spread throughout America. The funeral line was three kilometers long. Church bells played throughout the morning. The Finnish emergency echoed throughout Copper Island. Miners carried small white coffins to a common grave. 32,000 people mourned in Lakeview Cemetery. Eulogies were carried out in Finnish, English, German and Croatian.

The strike ended early in the following year. The Finns were treated as even lesser citizens than before, the lowest people on the North American continent. It was a crippling effect.

And then came World War.


"The strike was a terrible time," recalled Bill Pelto. "Money grants were obtained to help families. The scabs came at a bad time, gunshots echoed in Calumet."

Now when you walk through Calumet, you can only wonder what had been there once in power and wealth. The county had 80,000 inhabitants at its highest, its own opera, and a tramway. Now the streets are deserted, the buildings are empty. Dressed in ordinary attire, Finnish pastor Pekka Törhölä says the city's population has dropped now to 1100 people.

Calumet awakens in the summer, reappearing as a tourist town. In winter, forget it. The mines have long ago stopped working. The whole Keweenaw Peninsula has crashed. William Pelto mined until the end of that period.

Hancock's bitter hills, formed by the Finns, produced everything on which Hancock was built, telling future generations of that struggle, which the Finns lost.

But Bill Pelto remained through it all.

One who disappeared was Big Louie Moilanen, once Copper Island's landmark, 245 centimeters tall. Many like him disappeared to the forests on small farms.

Copper dots Calumet’s asphalt streets. Small copper nuggets glitter in the evening sun like tears shed for the Finns.


"Sisu has brought me to 85 years of age," said Bill Pelto, smiling. "Doctors never had to bother me as an adult. I’ve only now started having to go to the hospital. I fell on my back in the woods and could not get up, so I had to visit the hospital. I said when I left the hospital that I was in better shape when I came in. I've never complained about the little things." Bill credits that attitude to his health: "I guess it has helped."

Bill was able to buy a house for 20,000 markka; the mining company paid at least 70,000 toward it. Bill and Mamie are doing well here. They grow raspberries and make some extra money selling them.

The pension from the mine is a mockery. Fortunately, Social Security helps with a couple of thousand extra markka per month and Mamie gets another 1600 markka. If American pensions do not improve, no one will be able to take care of the elderly.

On a small bookshelf, Bill and Mamie have a recent edition of Yrjö Kokko’s 1950s work, The Way of the Four Winds.

But none of the winds will carry Bill to Finland.

"I have not been back after I left," said Bill. "I haven’t had the desire. I’ll be buried here.”