Researching the past

MARQUETTE – Author Steve Lehto’s Upper Peninsula roots were what drew him to the story of the Italian Hall Disaster in Calumet.

The book he published about the event, “Death’s Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913,” was what led him to being part of a documentary on the tragedy, “Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913,” which debuted nationwide on PBS in December and is available to watch on demand on the network’s website.

“I had been hoping for years that someone would do a straight forward historical documentary on the Italian Hall disaster and that it would get national coverage,” Lehto said in an email interview. “‘Red Metal’ did that and the filmmakers (Jonathan Silvers and Bob Lee of Saybrook Productions) must be applauded for that.”

Lehto’s U.P. roots?

“My family is from the Copper Country. My grandfather (Waino ‘Pop’ Lehto) was a longtime dean of Suomi College (now Finlandia University) and my parents are from Alston (mother) and Hancock (father),” Lehto said. “We also spent our summers in the area every year.

“I have been in southeast Michigan for most of my life, and grew up in Birmingham. I went to Oakland U in Rochester (BA in history) and Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles for my law degree (J.D.) I have an office in Royal Oak now and still practice law statewide while I write.”

Of the research for his “Death’s Door,” Lehto said, “(I) went to every archive and library where there might be information. Looked at everything I could find. I am still finding things! You never know where stuff will turn up and you can never imagine what is out there that hasn’t been found yet.”

Lehto himself went to the site of the disaster on Christmas Eve, which was the actual 100th anniversary of the deadly fire which has drawn much attention in recent months as the centennial of its occurrence approached.

As a press release about the film project explains, “In 1913, copper miners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. On Christmas Eve, miners and their families were celebrating the holiday on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet. Someone in the crowd yelling ‘Fire!’ prompted panic and a stampede for the stairs that resulted in the deaths of 73 people.”

Put together by Saybrook Productions, “Red Metal” covers the strike and the Italian Hall disaster. The filmmakers asked Lehto to consult on the documentary and also featured him in interviews about the tragedy.

“Saybrook has been very good with dealing with the facts. These issues are very controversial – but they’re not shying away from the controversy,” Lehto said.

Lehto’s book “Death’s Door,” which originally was published in 2006, disproved the myth that the hall’s doors opened inward and caused a bottleneck that left so many trampled, according to the press release.

Through photographic evidence shown in the book, Lehto proved that the doors were, in fact, outward-opening. This research prompted the Michigan Historical Commission to change the language on the historical marker at the site of the tragedy.

The language originally read, “Seventy-three persons died while attempting to escape down a stairwell with doors that opened inward,” but the new marker omits the reference to the doors.

In the second edition of the book released this past June 2013, Lehto includes additional research findings since the first edition was published including who he believes shouted “Fire!”

Lehto’s other books include “Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation,” “Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters” (co-written with Masters), “Michigan’s Columbus: The Life of Douglass Houghton” and “The Great American Jet Pack.”

“There are a few more, including some I am working on now,” he said. “I specialize in non-fiction and much of what I write has a Michigan connection.”

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.