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     Rockies, Coal Branch and Nordegg:  Early Years

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Early Years

World War I and
Interwar Period

World War II
and After

 Cultural Life


  Heritage Trails presented by CKUA Radio Network.
The town of Hillcrest
sprang up in 1905 and
prospered for over 
a decade before
becoming the site of
one of the worst 
mining disasters in
Canadian history.

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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

While the capital had to be found to establish the mines, once this was done, labour was required to develop and bring the product to market. Bankhead, Crow's Nest Pass, Nordegg and Coal Branch mining communities attracted workers from across Europe. Aritha Van Herk in her Mavericks:  An Incorrigible History of Alberta (Toronto:  Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 2001) writes:  "Wages of $3 a day attracted workers from all over the world, and coal became the crucible for unions; organizers from the United Mine Workers of America signed up miners by translating their creed into Italian, Ukrainian, and Hungarian."  A royal commission study of the coal industry in 1919 noted the following makeup of the labour force:

  • 90 percent of the workers in the Pass were immigrants

  • 34 percent were British

  • 23 percent were Slovak

  • 14.5 percent were Italian

  • 7 percent were French and Belgian

  • 2 percent were Russian

  • 8.5 percent were "other European"

  • 1 percent were American 1 

Individuals interviewed for several Edmonton-based oral history projects have indicated that retired miners made up a significant proportion of the Italian population of Edmonton estimated at 600 in 1914. It would appear from oral evidence that workers who came from Italy were enormously mobile and followed the work from the US to Canada, from east to west. For example, at the end of August 1885, Antonio Nigro and Giovanni Veltri traveled from Italy, through Paris to a port in Belgium. From there they embarked on a steamer for New York. After they arrived in New York (Ellis Island), they went on to Montana. Here they met Giovanni's brother, Vincenzo, who had been working for the Montana Central Company, which was building a railway from Helena to Missouri. 

Canadian Pacific Railway construction through the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, c. 1898.  Men with picks and horses with fresnos or graders. Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.They worked in Montana until May, 1887 and then went to Spokane. From there they later moved on into Canada. Antonio's son, Fedele (Felix) joined his father and uncles in 1897. He was 15 year's old. His father was working on a contract with the CPR on the Nelson-Slocan branch in southern B.C. They were working in a small camp near the border. This work was completed in October 1897. After this, they were awarded a 14-mile contract on the construction of the Crow' s Nest Pass from Kootenay Landing to Goat River. They became experts in rock blasting and continued to work throughout B.C. in Penticton, Grand Forks, and Nelson and then Winnipeg in June 1902. In October 1905 they worked on the 450-mile construction of the line between Winnipeg and Fort William. The immigration history of the Veltri (changed to Welch later) and the Nigro/Anselmo families is important because they became labour agents contracting and bringing workers from Italy. Their own movements were replicated by many other workers and they were also in the Rockies at the crucial period of railway building, which was accompanied by mining. They, and others like them, were able to supply the workers needed by these enterprises.

Giovanni Paron, who was born in 1892, in Val da Sone in northern Italy came from a farming family but joined his brothers in Michel in 1908 to work in the coal mines. They had arrived in 1903. He mentions that he left his town of 79 people with a group of workers who were to look after him. The journey from Italy to Michel took him 31 days and he went via Medicine Hat. Mr. Paron notes that he had two brothers working in the mine at the time of the Frank Slide but they were among the survivors. He describes getting his first job thus:

I get Michel on a Monday and on Tuesday, I have fun, you know, I start playing with young kids right away and I pick up fast English and I ask for a job and I went to the boss from the mine, and I ask Mr. Boss, you got job for me? So I went, he give me a job. 75 cents for 10 hours, picking rocks out of the coal. That what I done. I stay there for a while and then he put me to do something else and then I get little bit more money. Then I get $2.59 for 10 hours.

He stayed in Michel for 8 years (1916) and, then, when the band of which he was a member decided to move on to the US, he chose, instead, to go to Saskatchewan were he farmed for 25 years. He states, "I farm there. I have five sections of land and then I got married there. I got a wife from the old country by mail." The homestead was in Cutknife, Saskatchewan, and he mentions that there were almost 40 Italian families, also farming, there. His final move was to Edmonton, in 1941, so that his son could go to a good high school. He ended his career by setting up a machine shop where he did blacksmithing, welding and anything else needed, including inventing and patenting a special lathe.

Photo of Hillcrest Mine taken on the day after the explosion of June 19, 1914, in which 189 people lost their lives.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Another interesting account of early 20th century immigration to the region is that of Enrico Butti, father and son of the same name. In an oral history interview in 1983, Mr. Butti junior talks about his Father's work as a steam engineer in the silk mills in Lombardy. Butti senior was in charge of the steam engines that operated the mills and, before he came to Canada, had electrified the operations. He came to Canada in 1912 and, on his arrival, went to the Crow's Nest Pass area where he worked at converting the mines from steam to electricity. He was senior electrician at the Bellevue Mine when the Hillcrest Mine explosion happened and was among the first to arrive at the scene and provide assistance. According to Mr. Butti, of the 189 people killed, 28 were Italian. This is 14.8 percent, which coincides with the Royal Commission of 1919 finding of the percentage of Italians employed in the mines (14.5 percent). 

No. 1 mine, Canmore, Alberta, was started in 1887.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. The family joined him in 1917 and Mr. Butti remembers the journey in wartime and the blackout on the ship. He began work at age 16 (1920) running a boiler and hoist in the mines in Nordegg. He describes life in Canmore on their arrival-there were about seven families all from the Piedmont but he also mentions other workers from the southern Italian regions of Abruzzi and Friuli. After being injured as a result of the collapse of a scaffold in 1920, Mr. Butti senior moved his family to Edmonton and with monies received from the Compensation Board set up an electrical shop, which his son operated until his retirement.

Blairmore Hotel in one of the larger mining communities of Crow's Nest Pass area.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.An interesting source of information on Italian settlement are the community histories produced in the 1960s and 1970s. In The Story of Blairmore, Alberta, 1911-1961, it is noted that the important centres were Fernie and the satellite towns of Morrissey, Coal Creek and Michel 3 . Frank Vernon's band at Fernie, British Columbia, had several Italian musicians.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. Fernie, controlled by the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company, became the centre from which miners fanned out to the newer towns developed to support workings. A commentator notes that there were 10 towns in the 14 miles separating Burmis from Coleman. Howard Palmer notes: "By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, approximately 8000 people lived on the Alberta side. Of the nine communities on the Alberta side, Coleman and Blairmore eventually became the largest. Several mines manufactured coke for BC smelters." 4  Thus, the first development was on the BC side and Frank, Alberta, was intended to be the equivalent of Fernie until it was wiped out by the 1903 slide. According to the community history, H. E. Lyon and Felix Montalbetti, the section foreman, were the first settlers who erected cabins in spring 1899. 

Greenhill Mine at Blairmore, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.The mines prospered and Blairmore (after the Hon. A. G. Blair, then Minister of Railways in the Laurier government and Mr. More, the divisional superintendent) became known as "the Eldorado of the Golden West." The community prospered and its amenities included schools, businesses, a race track and an opera house. The first school, a one-room log building, was located next to the CPR tracks. St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church was built in 1910 (prior to that time, the missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate had served local Catholics). The first recorded baptism was of Charles Montalbetti on July 10, 1899. In 1907, E. Morino built the Rocky Mountain Cement Co., and worked as a general contractor and advertised in local newspapers offering to construct any kind of building. Another area contractor was J. E. Pozzi. Thus, very early on, Italians moved from being manual labourers to more responsible management positions and also to operating independent businesses.

 Italian men's society members, [Ordine Indipendente Fior D'Italia], Crowsnest Pass area, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.These communities were plagued by the cycle of boom and bust. The price of coal, good or bad management of the mining companies-all resulted in the end or continuation of employment. The miners had no reserves of funds and, if an accident occurred, frequently insurance companies did not give them their due. As a result, the Italian miners created mutual help societies based on Italian models. This was not necessarily a North American creation. A fascinating book titled Storia sociale del Comune di Grimaldi (1905-1925) [A Social History of the Comune of Grimaldi] by Raffaele Paolo Saccomanno, talks about the setting up of the Società Operaia [Workers' Society or trade union] in Grimaldi in 1905. 5  Mr. Butti mentions the Figli d'Italia [Sons of Italy], which originated in the U.S. in New York but also had branches in Canada. In fact, Evelyn Halickman in her unpublished essay "The Italian Community Montreal" mentions that the Sons of Italy began in Montreal in 1920 when some New York Italians visited to start up an organization similar to their own. According to Mr. Butti, these were called in the West, the Fiori d'Italia [Flowers of Italy]. This society was headquartered in Fernie, and provided insurance coverage. Ribbon of the Loggia Cesare Battisti at Nordegg belonging to Geno Poscente.  Photo courtesy of Guy Blasetti.He was corresponding secretary of the Cesare Battisti Society in Nordegg, and also of the Grand Lodge of Fernie. He also mentions a society in Saunders Creek and the Vittorio Emanuele Society in Calgary, as well as societies in Lethbridge and the Crowsnest Pass. They helped people who were sick and members contributed funds. They met about once a month and also helped Italian workers who were exploited and who could not speak for themselves.

Star of Italy Ladies Society 'Societa Stella d'Italia' in the Crowsnest Pass.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.The community history book Crowsnest and Its People provides additional pieces of information about Italians in the community. 6  The current Municipality of Crowsnest Pass comprises Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank, Blairmore and Coleman and was incorporated in 1979. Other mining communities, such as Sentinel, Lille and Passburg (Police Flats) are ghost towns, casualties of the boom and bust economy and the coming to eminence of oil and natural gas.  Genieve Rizzo's family history mentions that her Father, Frank Alampi and others founded the Società Italiana di Mutuo Soccorso, Confederazione Columbiana [Italian Society for Mutual Relief, Columbian Confederation]. She also mentions that she joined the Società Stella d'Italia [Star of Italy Ladies Society] in Coleman. Besides the mutual aid societies, there were also lodges, as has been noted above. 

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