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   Drumheller Valley:  World War I and Interwar Period

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Early Years

World War I and
Interwar Period

World War II
and After

Cultural Life


Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

The sense of boom times in the Drumheller Valley and the stresses and strains are captured by E. N. (Gene) Wright, in his account "Memories of My Early Days in Drumheller," in The Hills of Home. He writes about arriving in 1916 via CNR from Cardston:

The Rose Deer Coal Mining Company at Wayne had purchased several houses at Saunders Creek, Lovett and Coal Spur, west of Nordegg. These were steam-coal producing mines, and at that time the market for steam-coal diminished to a point of abandon, and the houses were put up for sale. The houses were dismantled in sections, loaded on railway cars and shipped to Wayne to be re-assembled and used for the mining officials and the employees. Some commercial buildings were also purchased and re-located at the Western Commercial Mine near by. 

View of coal community, Rosedale, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives, c.1912.What was happening in the region was the equivalent of the Yukon Gold Rush. There was no way in which housing, schools, hospitals (all the infrastructure of community living) could keep pace with the rapid growth. As well, conditions in the mines themselves were generally atrocious and the competing interests of the mine owners (and government) were on a collision course with miners' needs and grievances. These can be summarized as the need for government regulation as well as unionization. These subjects deserve extensive coverage in their own right but the following only provides a context for understanding material pertaining to Italian immigration history. 

Pick and shovel relief work in the Tim hills, Drumheller area, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.A primary source book is the hearings of the Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission in 1919. A partial transcript of the hearings was published by the Historical Society of Alberta, Alberta's Coal Industry, 1919 (Alberta Records Publication Board, Historical Society of Alberta, 1978). This was edited and with an introduction by University of Calgary historian David Jay Bercuson. Bercuson notes that the Commission was formed at a time of labour unrest and business uncertainty. Hearings lasted for two-and-a-half months beginning October 6th in Edmonton. Other sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. It is noteworthy that two of the hearing sites are in the Drumheller Valley area and is evidence of the importance of the region's mines. The Index of Witnesses provides a "quick" overview of the key mining companies in the province and interests represented. Of 12 recommendations, only three deal with issues pertinent to the welfare of miners.

The testimony of union leaders and individual miners, and union supporters makes riveting reading. J. Hillary, President, Rosedale Local, United Mine Workers of America, is asked about miners' accommodation, and the following exchange takes place. Initial questions are put by W. F. McNeill, an American-born mine manager who came to Alberta in 1895 and managed the McNeill Brothers Coal Mines in Canmore and was appointed in 1912 as commissioner (executive secretary) of the Western Coal Operators Association.

Q: There's no sleeping accommodation in this place?
A: There are only two or three rooms.
Q: Where do the men sleep who eat in this place?
A: In the bunkhouse.
Q: What do you mean by the bunkhouse? What sort of a house is it?
A: Where there's about 40 or 50 all in one building.
Q: What kind of accommodation is there:
A: Just small cots for them to sleep in. That's a poor accommodation for a miner.
Q: He hasn't very much privacy there:
A: He has no privacy at all.
Q: Is the bed satisfactory? You speak of a cot.
A: It has a spring and a small straw mattress on it, and either two or three blankets.
Q: They don't have to bring their own blankets?
A: No, they don't have to. It would be better for them to get more clothes and get them warm.

Questions by Henry Shaw, another mine owner who came to Edmonton from the US in 1913 and established the North West Biscuit Company. Bercuson notes that he was active in the Board of Trade.

Q: Are you a married man, Mr. Hillary?
A: Yes.

Q: And you live in one of these houses?
A: Yes.

Q: What would happen if a man put up an apartment house - if he had a nice room to accommodate two, and have it furnished neatly and heated properly, and surroundings good and effort made to make it as pleasant when you are out of the mine - would it be an inducement for man to come there, or would they not appreciate it?
A: They would appreciate it.

Q: Would foreigners appreciate it?
A: Now it's pretty hard work driving anything into these foreigners. You are up against something trying to deal with those fellows.

W. F. McNeil: 

Q: As a matter of fact, wouldn't a foreigner rather live in a shack and batch for himself?
A: Yes, any old dugout satisfies those fellows.

Q: By H. Shaw: Couldn't he be kind of educated to these things and eventually make a better man and a better citizen?
A: Providing these men are willing to be educated. The majority of them you can't teach them anything. 

Strikers from One Big Union, at Drumheller, Alberta, 1919.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Howard and Tamara Palmer in Alberta: A New History provide an excellent overview of the labour unrest in the mines. The Drumheller Valley played an important role in this labour unrest. The Winnipeg General Strike, which began in May 1919, was a spark that set off other strikes in support. Edmonton and Calgary both saw strikes and, in August 1919, violence broke out in Drumheller. Strikebreakers, drawn from returning veterans, attacked the miners and their homes. The miners, largely immigrants, were supporting the concept of One Big Union (OBU), which, they believed, would give them more bargaining clout when dealing with the establishment mine owners. The Palmers note:

Veterans seized the OBU leaders, brought them to a kangaroo court-martial at Drumheller, and ran them out of town. With this vigilante pressure operating while the police stood by, striking miners had little choice but to return to work. 

Homes of striking One Big Union miners attacked during strike, Drumheller, Alberta, 1919.   Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.The Bercuson book includes testimony from an Italian miner, S. Centazzo, who is listed as an unemployed miner from Edmonton. He is 23 years old and he indicates that he has worked in the mines in different parts of Alberta for 15 years. He has been locked out of mining jobs because of his union activities including being Chairman of the Humberstone miners. He appears very articulate and knowledgeable and would certainly have been viewed as a dangerous militant. He mentions that, in 1919, he had been working in Drumheller and refers to an experience of caring for an injured person in the mines there.

Centazzo, when asked by Chairman J.R. Stirling, if he has anything further to say, states: "Well, I don't know; according to the previous speaker I shouldn't be allowed to speak for the simple reason I'm not English speaking. Bath house for Rosedale coal miners, 1912.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.I don't know if you will allow me to." He is challenging authority but then proceeds to deal with concrete miners' concerns about what they are entitled to but don't get-for example hot water to wash themselves, heated washhouses as they come off shift and drying boxes to dry their clothes. He is challenged to state which mine he is referring to and he replies: "I will not take just one mine. I take in general. Because it's not fair to ask one fellow and leave the other out." He also makes recommendations with respect to safety lamps requesting that miners be allowed to carry small electric lamps in their pockets as a safety precaution in case of an explosion to help them get out of the mine. He also asks for blankets in the mine as well as stretchers to carry out the injured and enforcement of legal limits to hours of work. What emerges is a grim picture of the appalling conditions in the mines and the exploitation of workers not only on the job (including "docking" their pay packets for "dirty" coal) but through poor company housing and "gouging" through the company shops.

These, then, were the conditions of work faced by miners, such as John Castelli, who came to Canada early in the 20th century and worked in Corbin, BC. He returned to Italy to marry and he and his wife arrived on December 3, 1922 in Drumheller joining his brother Ercole Miglierina. Castelli was unable to find mining work and returned to Corbin. In 1926, he and his wife returned to Drumheller where he worked for Elgin Coal Company and the Hy-Grade Coal Company. Napier Theatre, Drumheller, Alberta, 1945.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.This pattern of moving to find or follow work is typical and also means that no trace may remain in a community when the mine closes either naturally or after an explosion. Enrico Miglierina came to Drumheller from Italy in 1923 and lived with his brother and sister-in-law, Ercole and Teresa Miglierina, who owned the Peoples Bakery next to the Napier Theatres; married Dinora Maffioli from Fernie. Eventually, Enrico worked in the bakery and Dinora in the candy counter at the Napier Theatre. There were among the lucky ones, who were able to make a transition from employment in the mines. 

Mrs. Montemurro worked at E.A. Toshach's store in Drumheller, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Frank Montemurro came to Wayne from Vancouver in 1918 to join his brothers Angelo and Jack who were already there. He remembers having to wear masks on the train because of the Influenza epidemic. He stayed there only six months before returning to Vancouver and then going to Nordegg. Eventually he returned to Wayne and worked there from 1922-29. Frank worked in the Ideal Mine and notes that most of the Sunshine Camp were Italians. He observes that there were six mines employing about 700 miners at the time. The family moved to Drumheller in 1929 and then worked at the Nacmine and for 23 years until his retirement (1960) at the Hy-Grade mine. He joined the Drumheller Lodge in 1928 and remembers the spaghetti dinners and dances where they made their own music (piano played by Albina [Chiuppi] Todo and saxophone played by Jimmie Chiuppi).

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