Country cost of copper, miners and non-miners manage to make ends meet | News, Sports, Jobs


What was the cost of living in the Land of Copper in the first decades of the 20th century?

Rows and rows of stocked shelves cluttering the stores did not guarantee an end to Frontier-era food limitations or food scarcity in Copper Country households, especially those on low incomes.

There was much publicity during the Copper Country Mine Strike of 1913 regarding the low wages paid for mining work in the years leading up to the strike. The historical literature arguing that mining companies did not pay their employees enough to live on is analyzed in the House of Representatives’ reports on conditions in Michigan’s copper mines, the report of the Committee of the Copper Country Commercial Club of its own survey of conditions in the Copper Country in 1913, local newspapers and other sources.

They overshadow questions about wages and the cost of living in the region for non-mining workers. As stated by the Mining and Engineering World in its article, Why the Lake Copper Strike Will Fail, Volume 39, published by the Western Mining World Company, investigations by the State of Michigan, the United States Department of Labor, as well as that the US House of Representatives found “that the working conditions were better and the wages paid were higher, considering the cost of living, than any other mining camp in the United States.

The Mining and Engineering World article pointed out that “Since the cost of living for the individual family largely depends on its management and number of members, and in all mining camps is the cost of the dining table for the single man, a comparison of the latter in Michigan is significant.”

In other words, considering the cost of living in Copper Country as a whole, how much did income and family size contribute to the quality of life in the mining district? When considering the costs of housing, fuel, water, and other considerations, just as today, food selections were largely determined by what was affordable once other expenses were met.

In reviewing statistics and records to establish some context for the standard of living in the region during the first two decades of the 20th century, it becomes apparent that there were two classifications: mining and non-mining workers. The classification comes from the fact that the producing mining companies provided their employees with benefits, opportunities and incentives that were not available to those not engaged in mining. Some examples include company-owned homes rented to employees at lower rates than one might find in non-mining housing, heating oil at wholesale rates guaranteed by companies and passed on to employees, l free or paid running water for these houses, medical insurance programs, etc. In addition to this, the surveys revealed that the lowest paid mining workers received higher daily wages than the prevailing non-mining daily wages in the region.

During the congressional investigation, Thomas H. Gibson, public works supervisor for Houghton Village, was called to testify regarding wages paid to non-mining workers. Prior to accepting this position, he had been a general contractor engaged primarily in road construction, maintenance of some township roads, and some railway construction work. As supervisor of public works, the men under his supervision engaged in projects such as the construction of sewers and streets, waterworks and “the general course of all kinds of work around a village or town.” He testified that for the past eight years, beginning in 1905, the common daily wage was $2 for a 10-hour shift; the work was classified as unskilled labour.

For the same period, according to the Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for trammers ranged from $2.30 to $2.54, with the average being $2.40. These wages were lower than those paid by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Co. and its subsidiaries, where wheeler wages ranged from $2.50 to $2.91. The general average for all businesses during the year 1912-13 averaged $2.59. The average monthly salary for miners outside of C&H and its affiliates was calculated at $2.78, 19 cents more than the average tramper.

The Copper Country Commercial Club conducted its own privately funded investigation. It was an organization of local businessmen established to promote manufacturing, commerce, agriculture and “other economic conditions”, he said in his investigation report. His report, when published, reads essentially like a pro-mining propaganda piece that compares the cost of living and personal finances in copper country to that of western mining districts where the Western Federation of Miners won strikes.

What the survey failed to do was answer its own question, which was whether the lowest-paid mine workers in Copper Country were paid enough to live in the area where they resided. Instead, he focused on whether WFM members in the western districts were doing as well as mine workers in Copper Country. It did not include, for example, the fact that, on average, local trammers earned an average of 30 to 91 cents per day more than the average non-mining worker in the region. What the survey did not address was that while the lowest-paid miners could not afford a decent standard of living in the region, neither could non-mining workers.

However, Supervisor Gibson testified that he frequently hired men who had left mining, accepting considerably lower wages, “only to get out of the mines and get a better job, probably.” Many of the men he hired, he said, came from the mines during the summer months to work and then returned to work in the mines during the winter months. Gibson did not say whether these workers owned or rented their homes.

What was established in the survey was that the average cost to build a house in 1912 was $2,000; the cost of land varied from village to village and from property to property.

During the same period, the Osceola Mining Company built, in the years before 1913, seven four-room houses at a cost of $818.74 per house. During the same period, the Franklin Mining Company built 53 six-room houses at $1,050.00 per house.

Most mining companies have made low-cost rental houses available to their employees. The survey found that the average monthly rent for frame houses was $1.10 per month per room for a three-room house; $1 for a four-room house; $0.98 for a five-room house; $0.95 for a six-room house; $0.91 for a seven-room house; $1.09 for eight-room houses (possibly a misprint); and for houses with nine or more rooms, the average rate was $0.80 per room.

All the frame houses of the Calumet & Hecla, Copper Range, Hancock and Houghton companies were supplied with running water, “with taps in the house”; while some of the houses in the Centennial, Isle Royale, Lake, Osceola, Tamarack and Winona mines were equipped with faucets. In three of the mines, 50 cents per month was charged for water. Business residents without running water obtained it from wells, the number of which varied from one per house to one for every five houses.

Although not all mining companies had log cabins, others had them, which they rented, as with frame houses, the rent varied according to the number of rooms, but was cheaper. The lake mine, for example, had two log cabins with two rooms each, which were rented for $1. In contrast, the Tamaracks owned three three-room cabins, which were rented for $1 a month per room.

Electricity was supplied to most official houses with charges ranging from 5 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour. Hard coal ranged from $8 to $8.15 per ton, while soft coal ranged from $6.75 to $7.25 per ton.

The standard of living also varied somewhat among employees of mining companies depending on the housing options that certain companies made available to them.

The standard of living dims when you consider that many mining companies still had log houses from their development phases that they continued to rent out to their employees. While frame houses were rented by most companies at around $1 per month per room, log structures were rented at 50 cents on average. While renting a log structure saved a substantial sum on housing costs in comparison, those who chose to reside in a log house opted for a lower standard of living in comparison.

Next week, we will continue to examine the economic conditions of the mining and non-mining labor force in Copper Country.



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