There was a whooshing sound, a blast of air, and a terrible thunderous crashing. Calvin Willis stood absolutely still while the noise reverberated all through the mine.
My God! Not another cave-in!
It was the sound all miners feared— being struck dead by falling rock, or worse yet, buried alive deep in the bowels of the earth, while the walls of the shaft collapsed, roared and echoed above and around them.
There would be warning sounds— first the cracking and dust falling from the walls. Sometimes that would be enough to speed the men to safety. Sometimes it was not.
Calvin would have to climb down the old stationary ladder, with no light but the small carbide lamp on his helmet. The man-car would be readying to take men from the stricken level to the top. It was difficult to see. He stumbled toward the ladder, reached it, and fairly skipped down the rungs.
Halfway down he heard the second blast. The ladder wobbled, twisted and threw its rider. Calvin dropped a few feet, his hands strumming over the rungs, but falling too fast to grab on.
Twisting to the side, he managed to jam a foot between the steps, and hook the vertical bar with his right arm.
The wobbling finally stopped. The silence was almost as frightening as the previous thunder. Stifling fear and pain, he continued to place one foot carefully below the other, descending into darkness and dust.
The Keweenaw Peninsula in Northern Michigan is an icy finger that slices into the cold waters of Lake Superior. Many copper mines dot this small strip of land. The Keweenaw was the largest. It was in one of its shafts that Calvin Willis found himself in a cave-in.
“Will there be anything else, Mrs. Willis?” Patty asked her mistress.
Patty was a loyal housemaid, a good-natured Irish woman, and Betsy Willis was fond of her. She was peppy and jolly, and Betsy enjoyed her company.
“No, Dear. You’ve done a fine day’s work, and your meat pie smells delicious. Oh, wait. If you could just put these pins in my hair. You do it so much better than I.”
Betsy was still beautiful, at forty-three, without a line in her face. Patty finished fastening her mistress’s flaxen hair in a bun. Betsy liked it better down, but it wasn’t considered seemly for a married woman to let it hang loose, untamed.
I’ll be off now,” her housekeeper replied.
Betsy Willis waited eagerly for the post. Her husband knew nothing of her letters to the editor. He would be enraged. She made a point of being sure to intercept the mail each day before he returned from work. Most days there was nothing, but she had to be alert every day.
Thus far, the Mining Chronicle in Houghton, which served the whole Copper Mining Community, had refused to publish a single one of her letters.
“They are so biased!” she complained to her friend, Rose. “They always take the side of Management, never the miners.”
“Why don’t you try the papers outside of Houghton?” her friend suggested.
Betsy found favor farther away. Some small presses around Marquette, and further south near Detroit and Chicago printed her letters. They were kind enough to send her copies, and even some of the controversial responses.
She dared not write under her real name. She took on the assumed name of B. T. Wilkins. She would have preferred to write as a woman, but feared her words would find even fewer ears.
She was incensed that the management of the Keweenaw Mining Company was so arrogant, standing, as it did, as the irrefutable lord and master over all it owned and all those it employed. What were they doing for their poor workers?
Betsy was married to a man who stood for management. He owned a profitable general store on Company land. Their two sons worked for the Company— Roy as a shaft supervisor, and Calvin as a shift captain under his brother. She didn’t expect any support from this triumvirate of male power, all on the side of Management.
She stepped out on the veranda. Where was the postman? Late again. She sat on the swing in this hot and humid July, while mosquitoes buzzed about her. They were so large some joked they were the state bird.
She tried to focus on the garden, so lovely and fragrant this time of year. The lilacs were gone, but the roses, forget-me-nots and the spreading-pea were profuse and colorful.
She heard his buggy— Jeremy home already? Oh, my God, and the post not yet here.
“Smitty’s trying to make up time he lost when he had influenza,” Jeremy said as way of explanation. “Didn’t see any point in both of us staying on.”
Jeremy approached the porch. A stout and strong man, he looked older than he was, which was fifty-three. He strode through the house, but his wife remained on the porch.
He called from within. “Betsy, get me something cool to drink, will you?”
Reluctantly she went to the kitchen and poured two glasses of lemonade made earlier in the day. Anxiously, she jabbed at the big block in the ice-box with the ice pick, sending bits flying across the room.
When she returned to the parlor, Jeremy was holding the mail! Betsy held her breath. She could feel her hands shaking, and the ice tinkle against the glasses. She set the drinks on the table. Jeremy was riffling through the mail.
“Bills, bills,” he was saying. “Oh, what’s this?” He turned the letter over. “From the Flint Gazette. July 20, 1912. Addressed to a B.T. Wilkins. Do you know any Wilkins?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Wrong address.”
He tossed the letter aside, and took the others to his desk. She took a deep breath. Dare she pick up the discarded missive?
A piercing whistle sounded through the town.
“What about it?”
It was such a frequent trumpet Jeremy seldom paid attention to it.
“That’s not the whistle for the end of the shift,” Betsy said. “It’s too soon. I wonder if there’s been trouble—”
“Betsy, you’re a worry too much.”
They sat sipping their lemonade, while Jeremy regaled her with tales of the day— when some heavy man sat on the chair near the flour barrel, and it broke landing the poor man on the floor, and how two urchins had run off with a couple of apples each. Betsy wasn’t listening.
“And what do you think about that, my dear?”
“I’m sorry. About what?”
“Pay attention, Betsy. About rampant theft.”
“It’s against the law.”
“Of course it’s against the law,” he continued. “What’s the law doing about it? Our friend, Sheriff Foster is getting lax, I fear.”
As usual, whenever Jeremy got excited or angry, the color rose in his face.
“I’m sure he’s dealing with more important things than a few stolen apples.”
The ring of the telephone invaded their silence. Betsy still had not gotten used to this intrusion in their home.
She rose to answer it. What she heard was a lot of cackling, cracking noises, and no voice.
“Hello, hello,” she kept saying over and over.
But only the annoying sound continued. Finally, she hung up.
“I don’t know who it was,” she told her husband. “Nothing but noise. You don’t suppose it had something to do with that early whistle—”
Jeremy snorted with irritation. He stood and made way for the newly installed water closet, attached to the back of the house.
Betsy waited for him to be out of sight before darting for the dispatch. Just then he returned.
“Curious about that letter,” he said, picking it up.
He looked at the envelope. “July 20, 1912.” He tore it open and looked at the contents.
Betsy was sure all color had drained from her face.
“Some nut-case trying to foment trouble for mining companies. Listen to this. ‘Dear Editor, I write this in the hope that those of your readers with open minds will understand what our poor miners in the copper pits must endure. The safety conditions are such, that a wife never knows when she hands his lunch pail to her husband if she’ll ever see him again. Cave-ins are not uncommon. Insufficient supports—‘” Jeremy tossed the dispatch back on the table.
The telephone rang again. Jeremy answered it.
Betsy listened to a long silence.
Jeremy’s face turned ashen. “When did it happen?”
“How is he now?
Betsy knew something terrible had happened. But what? And to whom? Finally Jeremy got off the telephone.
“That was Roy. There’s been a cave-in in his shaft.”
“Is he hurt?”
“No. He wasn’t there at the time. But Calvin was.”
Betsy sucked in her breath. “Cal? Is he— ?”
“Roy is headed for the shaft now.”
Betsy sucked in her breath. “Oh, my God! Is Cal . . ?”
Jeremy was out the door before Betsy could finish her question.
Cal couldn’t give in to fear. He somehow managed to get to the shattered level. Clouds of dust were so thick he could barely see where he was going, but the shouts of men led him to the collapse.
His helmet lamp flickered, came up brightly, flickered again, and went out. Cal stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. Choking on the dust, he tied his kerchief over his nose and mouth and forged ahead in total darkness.
His left foot was shooting up tremendous bolts of pain. But he couldn’t think about that now. He had to get to the men.
As if coming from another level, the first words he heard were, “He’s dead.”
“Who?” Cal called out.
“Fritz Rosenberg,” someone shouted back— and then the echo, “Fritz Rosenberg.”
Cal got as near as he could. A mountain of rubble lay between him and his stricken crew, filling the narrow drift wall to wall.
He heard, “Carl’s bleeding a lot.”
Cal coughed out, “Rip up somebody’s shirt. Tie it around the wound— tight.”
Then he realized he didn’t even know where the man’s injury was.
Damn. He couldn’t get near his men. How the hell was he supposed to direct them?
He could see that there was a small space— about twelve inches between the top of the rubble and the ceiling. Maybe he could squeeze through.
He began the torturous climb over the mountain of rock— stumbled and fell. Rocks, dislocated for the second time, tumbled around him.
Two rays from the helmet lamps shone above him, lighting the dust like thousands of galaxies. The miners were clambering to the pinnacle of the rubble. Finally, they got over the top, and started slipping down.
“Give us a hand, sir, we’ll help you over.”
Gratefully, Cal accepted. Excruciating pain shot up to his thigh, as he placed his throbbing foot on one unsteady rock after another. He felt faint, and fought back nausea.
“You’re hurt, sir,” remarked a man called Tory.
“How many injured?” Cal said.
“Three, maybe four. Not sure if they’ll all survive.”
The hours ticked on— five o’clock, six o’clock. Betsy’s daughter
AnnaBeth was still upstairs. Betsy saw no need to alarm her, and didn’t call her down. She paced the floor. When would she hear what was happening? Jeremy had gone to the mine hours ago. He had not called. No one had.
AnnaBeth, her eldest, finally came downstairs. She’d been reading Pride and Prejudice.
“Where is everyone?”
When Betsy told her, the young woman turned white.
“Why didn’t someone tell me?” AnnaBeth said.
Betsy squeezed her hand.
“What if something’s happened to Cal?” she asked, eyes widened with fear.
“We’ll pray that nothing has,” Betsy said.
But AnnaBeth could see that her mother was upset. She sat beside her and pulled her mother’s head down on her shoulder.
Finally, Jeremy came home. Betsy waited for him to speak.
“Pour me a glass of whiskey,” he commanded.
“Get on with it!” She screamed silently.
Jeremy gulped the whiskey.
“Roy is in the shaft helping out. Two dead, four injured— one seriously.”
“He’s on top now, too.”
“Is he hurt?”
While Betsy stopped breathing, Jeremy chewed on a piece of ice.
Finally, he answered. “A sprained ankle, he thinks.”
Betsy released a great sigh of relief— and sent up a prayer.
Everyone was out of the shaft now— the healthy, the injured, the dead. The injured were taken to the hospital, the dead to the morgue.
Tears were running down Cal’s face.
“Come on, Cal,” his brother tried to soothe. “It happens sometimes. It’s terrible. But it’s not your fault. You did everything you could.”
“Those guys were my friends, Roy. I’ve known Carl all my life.”
The brothers could be mistaken for twins, they looked so much alike— except Cal, who was a year younger than his brother, had brown eyes like his father, and Roy’s were blue as his mother’s. Both were sturdy lads, about five feet eleven and weighing around one hundred ninety pounds.
Earl Foster had arrived above the scene of the cave-in some time before. He had held the position of sheriff in Houghton County for seventeen years. Robust and kind, he was well liked by almost everyone.
“Anything else I need to be involved with here?” Earl asked. “I’ve finished my preliminary report. That’s about all I can do for now.”
“Not unless you want to sue the company for not installing enough stulls,” Cal burst out. “Those walls need more supporting!”
“Be quiet,” Roy commanded. “You’re on management’s side now, brother. Be careful what you say.”
“I’m not going to quote you, son,” the sheriff said with compassion. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Maybe a lift, for my injured brother.”
Although there were many automobiles in this progressive town, Earl Foster didn’t own one. They helped Cal into the sheriff’s buggy.
At home, Roy and Earl Foster got Cal into the house.
Roy helped his brother into the bath. Betsy prepared an ice-pack for his ankle.
“If it isn’t better in the morning,” Roy said, “you should see a doctor.”
He returned to the parlor to talk to his father. The sheriff was gone.
“That was the third accident at the Keweenaw in as many months that’s killed someone,” Roy said. “Some of them weren’t even twenty years old!”
“Risks come with the job,” Jeremy Willis said.
“Much too often!”
Roy was stamping back and forth across the floor. “The Company should take better safety precautions!”
“I’m sure they do what they can,” their father replied.
Roy fairly shouted, “Even when they don’t shore up the walls where they’re busting out rock?”
For a week, Cal lay in pain on the sofa, while Betsy and AnnaBeth hovered over him. AnnaBeth read to him, she sang to him. Sometimes she lay on floor beside the sofa dozing. But she was nearby, in case he needed something.
In the parlor, a week later, Roy sat next to his brother.
“Stay off that ankle,” Roy cautioned. “Give it time to heal.”
“But I’ve got to get to my shift! I can’t be a lay-about forever.”
“I’m covering for you.”
“For at least two more weeks. Then we’ll see.”
Cal sighed. “How many levels have been closed?”
“Three. One above, and one below Level Eight. I can’t open those until we determine how safe they are.”
Carefully, Roy elevated Cal’s leg and placed another pillow under it.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather be upstairs?”
“No. I’m fine here. Closer to the commode.”
“Well, if you don’t need anything else, I’ll be off to work.”
“Go,” Cal said. “And thanks for everything.”
“What are brothers for?”
It took a month before Cal’s ankle was healed enough to let him return to work. The collapsed level was still closed, but all other levels were open.
On his third day back he said to his brother, “I want to see Level Eight.”
“You’ve seen it.”
“Yes.” Roy sighed. “All right, but I’m going with you. It’s a mess. You can’t go hobbling over all the rubble with—”
“I know. I know.”
They rode the man-car down, bringing extra lamps with them. The dust had settled as he knew it would, so it was at least possible to see the shape of things. It was an eerie sight. Light cast against the irregular walls created ghostly shapes and shadows.
“I can’t have this rock trammed out until we know it’s safe to go in there,” Roy said.
They cast their lights around the rubble, and passed them across the walls.
They stood at the opening of the drift for some time. Roy had experienced more accidents than Cal, and he respected his brother’s silence.
“Well, have you seen enough?” Roy finally asked.
“Wait!” Cal cried out.
Cal threw his light on the wall just the other side of the rubble. “Do you see that?”
Roy directed his lamps on the spot where Cal was focused.
“What is it?”
“Look closely. There are carvings.”
Roy looked. “Oh, I see them now.”
“Is that a star of David?”
“Yes! For Fritz.”
“And a cross— for Carl.”
They had attended both funerals, but nothing touched Cal like this.
A lump swelled up in his throat. If he’d been alone he might have cried. Roy put his arm around his brother’s shoulder.
The miners, mainly immigrants from many different countries, were very clannish and loyal to their ethnic groups. But when it came to disaster, they were a brotherhood.
As if branded on his brain, Cal would never forget the cross and star the men had carved in the wall before they’d been rescued.
James McNeary caressed the five pound chunk of pure copper that lay on his desk. He was the general manager of the Keweenaw Mine, and mightily satisfied with what he’d accomplished for the stockholders back east, and the community he reigned over. This town of thirty-five thousand, unlike other communities its size, had completely paved streets, electric lighting, streetcars that ran twenty-four hours a day. Telephones were common too. James McNeary had put Red Jacket and the Keweenaw Peninsula on the map. Of course there were several other mines about, but none as large and progressive as the Keweenaw.
Red Jacket was on the big-time circuit of entertainment along with New York, San Francisco and Chicago, bringing in the likes of Enrico Caruso and Douglas Fairbanks. James McNeary was proud of what he’d accomplished in this frozen finger of the north. Along with other towns, the population was approaching one hundred thousand. Life was good.