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   Early Years:  Mines and Railways

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The town of Hillcrest...
 the site of one of the
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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

Page 1  |  2

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, according to Bill Nigro, at the end of August 1885, Antonio Nigro, his great-grandfather, 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, according to Bill Nigro, was building a railway from Helena to Missouri [Missoula?]. 1

Canadian Pacific Railway train and steamboat at Kootenay Landing, British Columbia - two common means of transport used during the coal-mining boom.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.They worked in Montana until May, 1887 and then went to Spokane. 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 BC. 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 BC in Penticton, Grand Forks, and Nelson and, then, Winnipeg in June 1902.  In October 1905 they worked on the construction of the 450-mile 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.

The town of Frank, Alberta, was partially buried in 1903 during the infamous Frank Slide.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.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 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 (1903) but, happily, 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 eight 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 where he farmed for 25 years. 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.

In an oral history interview in 1983, Enrico 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. Hillcrest Mine, one of many coal mines in Alberta employing Italians in the early 20th century.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. 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). 

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Copyright © 2002 Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D. and The Heritage Community Foundation


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