- Mine Towns: Buildings for Workers in Michigan’s Copper Country
America’s industrial landscapes contain many evocative clusters of subsidized housing built by a parent company for its workers. Usually peripheral to a company’s manufacturing or mining structures, these modest worker dwellings serve as physical reminders of the difficult and sometimes dramatic struggles of their inhabitants for dignity and equality. Often these clusters are all that remain after the demolition of the main industrial structures. Their at times monotonous similarity renders them intelligible within an often grim and marginalized context. Even individualized changes over time, such as porch additions or wrappings of vinyl or asphalt siding, cannot disguise their once standardized construction and simple site plans. Familiar examples exist in most regions of the United States, like the alphabetized streets of the mill community of Whitinsville, Massachusetts, or the unrelenting streets of repetitive housing forms in the mining towns of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Mill communities in the South such as Monroe, Georgia, have row upon row of “shot-gun” houses whose tiny pedimented entrances front tree-lined streets. Southern New England’s larger former textile centers have entire neighborhoods of ubiquitous “triple deckers,” long blocks of matched multifamily dwellings. The discovery of these forgotten fragments of replicated worker housing reveals other deeply hidden layers of history. The most famous, and beautiful, example is the failed social experiment of Pullman, Illinois, south of Chicago. Pullman’s attractive brick row houses and hierarchical streets and squares make a harmonious urban composition envied today by planners and architects, in spite of its deeply flawed paternalism.
The repetition of housing forms in these and other examples suggest a complex urban ambiguity. On the one hand, repetition negates individuality, reducing inhabitants to faceless cogs in the vast impersonal machinery of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Yet these same forms also tell a different story—of individuals joined together into communities that offered hope and resilience. The resolution of the tension between repetitive parts that perhaps constitutes a larger whole and the expression of the individual though his or her private dwelling is the essence of successful urbanism.
In this thoughtful, rigorously researched book, Alison K. Hoagland addresses this ambiguity through discovery and discussion of unique company towns in Michigan’s northern peninsula. She finds her evidence in housing and other aspects of the area’s material culture—schools, churches, libraries, and other communal structures—and weaves a fascinating tale of immigrant workers that brings alive the people and communities that labored in the region’s copper mines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because Hoagland describes modest buildings that have often been demolished, the book relies heavily on plans and historic photographs. Mine Towns is unusually rich and graphically complete, with many illustrations that are well explained and thoughtfully integrated with the text. The author’s grasp of the subtleties of architectural spaces inferred from plans is remarkable and rewards a close study of her thorough research.
After a brief introduction to the Copper Country of the upper Michigan peninsula, Hoagland discusses the different typologies of the region’s worker housing, such as “saltboxes and T-plans.” By interpreting historic plans and photographs, her writing exposes the daily lives of immigrant families and their different living arrangements. Poignant photographs capture the sparseness of the interior furnishings of these homes; Hoagland’s writing explains the incredible crowding. The density of boarders within such limited spaces recalls the conditions of New York’s Lower East Side tenements. She notes that workers may have shared the same beds in shifts corresponding to their working hours. In “Acquiring Conveniences” (chapter 4), she elaborates housing modernizations such as interior plumbing, central heating, and electrical services in fascinating detail and provides an insightful history of the conveniences we take for granted today. As many of these [End Page 103] changes to the interiors of dwellings took place within...