The Calumet and Hecla Library

Almost a full decade before Carnegie money found its way to the Copper Country, it was financial support from another capitalist with more local ties that brought the first dedicated library building to the region. That man was Alexander Agassiz, president of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Like Carnegie, Agassiz was an immigrant from humble beginnings that by happenstance and hard work was able to take advantage of the industrial transformation of the country to garner himself great power and wealth. As president of the great C&H Empire, Agassiz leveraged his company’s wealth and prestige to keep his workforce as content as possible through an industrial governance known as paternalism.  Towards that goal the company provided its workforce with cheap housing, public baths at its bathhouse,  free healthcare through its hospital, and assisted in the erection of churches on company property. In 1896 the company added yet another fringe benefit to its offerings – a public library.

As was typical for anything Agassiz did, the public library that C&H would end up building would be bigger and better then anything else in the region. Agassiz utilized a Boston architecture firm for the design, consulted with Harvard University in the selection and acquiring of books, and hired a professional librarian to set up and catalogue the massive collection. Agassiz important over 3000 books from Boston with another 3800 coming from the township holdings to fill the new library’s shelves. The result was a beautiful two-and-a-half-story public building that in both its architectural prowess and quality of facilities  rivaled anything else found in the region at the time or since.

The Calumet and Hecla Library – as Agassiz insisted it be called – is designed in a similar style to what can be seen across the road at the administration offices, though with a slightly more prestigious flare. In addition to the library itself, the building originally served as the company’s bath house as well,  with a collection of baths in the basement segregated into male and female areas.

The main entrance to the library sits along its northern facade, surrounded by a brick archway and shrouded under a small portico. Once patrons entered the building they would be greeted by a pair of cloak rooms set on either side of the doorway – one for men and another for women.

Originally the building was designed with only one main entrance, but C&H architects altered the design to include a second entrance along Mine Street, on the building’s west facade. This entrance opened onto the building’s main stairwell, which was lit by the large arched window seen just above the entrance. This entrance also featured a large covered entryway – something particularly necessary in the harsh northern climate.

On the other side of the building we find a facade dominated by a brick chimney protruding out of the second floor. The chimney marks the location of the library’s main reading room, which was anchored by a large fireplace on its east end.

A close up look at that chimney and round-arched windows found along the upper floor reveal some of the great architectural detail and flourish that this exceptional building offers to passersby who take the time to notice.

I especially like the wood trim and brick accented “crest” found up at the building’s peak. It has a very European flair that makes the building particular unique among its local brethren.

Protruding out the rear of the building is a large wing featuring a line of tall two-story windows along its first floor. Behind these windows was the stack room, where the library’s compliment of books were located. This room was closed off from the rest of the library and only the librarian and her assistants could enter to retrieve books. Once retrieved, the books were brought back to the front of the building to a large lobby area known as the “Book Delivery Room”, where the books would be “delivered” to the patron who requested it. In some cases the books would be placed into a dedicated dumbwaiter, where they could be brought up to the second floor reading rooms directly.

Here’s a look at that Book Delivery Room as it originally appeared. This shot is from the perspective of the main entrance vestibule looking towards the back of the building. Through the doorway in the back can be glimpsed the stack room and the rows upon rows of book shelves containing the libraries collection.

The collection of books available at the Calumet and Hecla Library was incredible, not just in size and scope but also in variety of language. In order to cater to all the residents of Calumet the library featured multiple copies of many books translated into the various native languages of  C&H workers. It also carried a large selection of fiction and children’s books, kept in open stacks up in the  reading rooms. There was also an impressive collection of stereo-views, Copper Country photographs, and maps. In just a decade the library’s collection would grow too large for its original stack room, and a secondary stack room would have  to be constructed in the basement  to handle the overflow.

Once patrons received their books, they would head up the grand main stairway to the second floor reading rooms. The main reading room – seen above – was a cavernous space whose grand cathedral ceilings rose high up into the rafters. A large arched- hearth fireplace adorned the far wall, flanked by a pair of large east facing windows to allow a generous amount of light in.

At the opposite end of the room was a large loft space, known as the gallery. This area was used as a general meeting space, whose most celebrated function was the hosting of a weekly Saturday story-time hour for children. The gallery would be used quite frequently, so much so that a glass partition had to be erected separating the gallery from the reading room below to cut down on noise.

In addition to the main reading room, the upper floor also featured a smaller secondary reading room sitting just above the stack room. This was the children’s reading room, where the majority of the library’s fiction and children books were located. Like the “adult” reading room next door (seen through the open doorway above), this reading room also featured cathedral ceilings opened high up into the rafters. While perhaps not the most economical of  designs in a northern climate such as Calumet’s, it sure would have been an impressive room to sit in nonetheless.

The Calumet and Hecla library was a roaring success, and it became one of the most patronized places in the city. Its vast collection was free to not only C&H employees from Calumet and surrounding towns, but was also free for anyone within the Calumet school district employee or not. The building’s baths were so successful that C&H had to build a dedicated bath house to meet the need. With the completion of the dedicated bath house, the basement level of the library was converted into storage space for its ever expanding book collection.

While highly popular, the library could not survive the ever changing nature of progress, and by the 1940’s the library had become a financial burden to the ailing  mine company. With the workers now unionized and Agassiz himself long gone, the old paternalistic practices of the company had faded away and a library operated with C&H profits for the benefit of the community had become an outdated concept. Thus in 1944 the decision was made – after nearly half a century  of service – to close the library down for good. The building was emptied and its massive collection of books were donated to the Calumet Public school system. The building itself would  remain under C&H’s ownership and would be used as addition office space, with the first floor being altered significantly to create a collection of new offices for company executives.

Today the building is under the ownership of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, and houses the parks archive collections and offices. As such it continues to serve its original purpose, by providing a place where people can peruse the park’s collections and learn a little bit more about the great Copper Empire that was.

Discuss…

  1. Thank you so much for all that you do, with this site. I have found it very informative, and interesting. I visit the Keweenaw often, and quite frequently use your site for information on what to visit next. On my next visit I plan to visit this building, and check out its awesome interior and peruse its archives. Thanks again for your amazing labor of love.

    • Thanks Phil, good to hear from people who enjoy the site! Hopefully I can continue to bring interesting new places to your attention. As far as the library is concerned, its not technically open to the public for tours. You can get an appointment to have access to the archives, but those are located in some of the old offices on the main floor.

  2. I was told the library contains some of Louis Agassiz’s original drawings.

  3. I echo Phil Nelson’s sentiments. This is a great resource.

  4. Thank for the compliments Jim, glad you enjoy the site. As far as those Louis Agassiz drawings I have not heard that myself. I did get a tour of the library and a few of their items but no drawings. I would have guessed that most of that material was given to Harvard but some might of wound up in his son’s hands and in turn the library.

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