Christmas down under (ground)

Pictured is the Rolling Mill Mine in Negaunee where some underground Christmas parties occurred. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

NEGAUNEE — It all started with a small Christmas tree that had fallen off a passing sleigh. It was December 1920 and one of the trammers at the Rolling Mill Mine in Negaunee found it alongside the road.

Rather than taking it home for himself, he decided to send it down into the mine with a load of timber as a joke. (Another version of the story claims that the tree was simply kicked into the opening and fell down the shaft.) The miners underground took up the joke, stuck the tree in a corner and began “decorating” it by tossing bits of paper and other items on it.

By the time Mine Capt. Charles Miron came along, the tree looked like it was covered in snow. The men had worried about his reaction but even though time and equipment was short, he decided to play along and arranged a single electric light to illuminate the tree.

Over time, the underground Christmas celebration grew from decorating a simple tree to including a large party for the men as well. As he moved from job to job, Capt. Miron took the tradition of the underground Christmas party with him from the Rolling Mill Mine where it originated, to the Archibald Mine and then Morris Mine in North Lake.

On Dec. 21, 1936, a new reporter at The Mining Journal, W.H. Treloar, was invited to the party. At 7 that morning, the underground crew, some of the surface force and several visitors, about 150 men, gathered at the mine.

In groups they descended to the seventh level (about 1,600 feet below ground) where a Christmas tree had been decorated. It was illuminated with a dozen colored lights and there was an illuminated star as well. Treloar described the scene, saying that the “lights from their mining hats added to the eerie effect.”

The last group to arrive at the party were the carolers. As the other men waited in silence, the singers began singing “Silent Night” as they descended. Once everyone was there, the day shift boss, Jim Fowler, handed out gifts.

The gifts that the men bestowed on each other were not sweet sentimental things — any man who made a misstep during the year could expect to be reminded of it in a pointed manner. In one case, a mine carpenter who had made a 6-inch error 3 months earlier was presented with a ruler. An hour later after more songs had been sung, the party was over and the men went back to work.

This was the first time the party had been reported on in The Mining Journal. The story piqued national interest and was reported across the country in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Two years later, in 1938, the party had survived Capt. Miron’s move to the Penn Mine in Vulcan, due to the support of the mining company, Inland Steel. R.L. Wahl, the manager of the mining department said, “We feel the party is much worthwhile. For this eventful two hours, they stand together, all the petty differences of their everyday life forgotten, men joined together in common observance of a season that neither knows nor draws any line between race and religion.

“The gifts, it is true, strike a lusty note, but it is a man’s event and although the recipient getting a first-class kidding, it is done in the spirit of the occasion. It’s a he-man’s way of showing sentiment and he would not have it otherwise.”

Despite his move, Capt. Miron remained a supporter of the party. In 1938, he was still willing to get up at 3:30 a.m. to drive 100 miles to celebrate the holiday with his former colleagues. The following year the party had been adopted at the Greenwood and Amour No. 1 mines and publicity had extended as far as Waco, Texas.

Unfortunately the tradition came to an end during the early years of World War II. During Ishpeming’s Centennial, the party was commemorated on a float sponsored by the mining company but it was never revived as a Christmas celebration.