Historical Society of Michigan to present award to Barnes-Hecker Remembrance Committee

From left, Barnes-Hecker Remembrance Committee member and local historian Jim Paquette talks to state Rep. Scott Dianda, state Rep. Sara Cambensy, and BHRC Chairwoman Mary Tippett about the importance of the event to local historic preservation during a media event at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee on Wednesday. The Historical Society of Michigan chose the committee and the series of events it organized in October and November of 2016 to commemorate the 1926 Barnes-Hecker Mine tragedy. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

NEGAUNEE –The Historical Society of Michigan is honoring a group of volunteers and descendants of those whose mine shifts never ended.

The historical society, the state’s oldest cultural organization, will present the State History Award in the category of Special Programs/Events to the Barnes-Hecker Remembrance Committee during its annual Michigan History Conference in Sturgis Sept. 21-23.

The society presents 18 such awards every year to individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the appreciation, collection, preservation and/or promotion of state and local history.

The Barnes-Hecker committee came together with state legislators and community leaders at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee Township during a meeting event on Wednesday.

The committee, led by Barnes-Hecker descendant Mary Tippett, rallied the community during a weeklong series of events in 2016 to remember the 90th anniversary of the third worst underground mine disaster in the United States.

Tippett — whose grandfather Walter Tippett perished during his first shift at Barnes-Hecker on Nov. 3, 1926, along with 50 other fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and grandfathers — said she and Upper Peninsula historian Jim Paquette began planning the events with “modest goals” in mind.

“(We had) no idea of how many people would be interested and show up at the events,” Tippett said. “We quickly learned that there was a groundswell of support from the community. From the steelworkers to the volunteers at the churches to the attendees themselves. Those who attended were so deeply touched by what we had done, and it became, not just a remembrance of the Barnes-Hecker men, but a remembrance of all of the men who were lost in mining.”

The Barnes-Hecker tragedy itself took roughly 10 minutes to unfold, Tippett said, from the first rumbling of seemingly routine charges underground to the rush of oncoming water. Only one of the 52 men working in the mine that day was able to, by some miracle, climb 800 feet to the top of the shaft and survive.

The remembrance events, which spanned October and November of 2016, educated the general public about the historical tragedy, and has led to the donation of photos and documents related to the incident to museum collections and exchanges from descendants that might not have otherwise taken place, Tippett said.

“Now our focus is shifting to what happened to the families after the Barnes-Hecker tragedy. We are receiving and exchanging information from literally all over the country and in at least three foreign countries,” Tippett said. “To have the state recognize our efforts in this spectacular way is beyond what we ever could have expected and we are deeply honored to be the recipients of the award.”

Tippett said her sister Annie Tippett, along with two of her sons, will be traveling to Sturgis to accept the Historical Society of Michigan award next week.

She said the Barnes-Hecker committee was also grateful to state Reps. Sara Cambensy of the 109th District and Scott Dianda of the 110th District for sponsoring additional descendants to attend the Sturgis events.

Cambensy, who will face Melody Wagner of Gwinn for her House seat in November, and Dianda, who is vying for the Senate’s 38th District seat against Ed McBroom, presented committee members with checks during the event Wednesday.

Greg Montgomery, who works at the Tilden Mine and represented the United Steelworkers Union Local 4974 and 4950 chapters at Wednesday’s event, said the state recognition does the region proud.

“I work with descendants still today from the Barnes-Hecker. I am just proud of the families, the organizers and our community. They paid the ultimate price,” he said of the Barnes-Hecker victims. “You know, they are still down there — their shift never ended. They deserve to be remembered and give closure to their families if we can.”

Paquette said the Marquette County community was one of the biggest contributors to the event’s success.

“The great reward was people like yourselves who came forward to honor all of these miners who have passed on in tragic accidents but also their families,” Paquette said. “By the hundreds and hundreds, by the thousands they still live in these communities. We worked in those mines and we understand the dangers of it and that makes us all the more appreciative of what you have done for us here as well as the community and the press.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.