Italian immigrants travelled by boat, steamer, railroad, horse and cart, and sometimes on foot to reach B.C.

Families arrive by boat, train and on foot. Most Immigrants leaving Italy or Europe for North America at the end of the Nineteenth Century, arrived in Halifax, Montreal, San Francisco, or New York. From there they would join relatives in established communities or make their way to areas offering employment. Many Italians that had emigrated to other countries ended up in Canada, sometimes having travelled almost half-way around the globe.

In Canada, Quebec and Ontario were major destinations, some stayed, sending for their families, and making these provinces their permanent homes. Many single males (immigrants and sojourners) started out in these provinces finding labouring work with the railroads, mining and transport.

As one phase of the railroad (or mine closed down) was completed, they would contract for the next phase which would take them across the nation.

United by their ethnic, tribal, geographical, familial, political and religious connections, they communicated by mail or word of mouth to other Italian immigrants, passing along information about upcoming jobs and opportunities.

Italian Immigrants arrive in British Columbia, and the Kootenays.

At the end of the Nineteenth Century, British Columbia was undergoing a great period of industrial expansion. Victoria the Capital was developing as a city and major centre for Vancouver island. Vancouver incorporated as a city in 1886 reaping the benefits of being both a harbour and terminal for the CPR thus making the city a valuable economic and trade centre for the West. Both cities were ports of entry to immigrants looking for employment.

As the National Railways reached completion in British Columbia, many immigrants from all over the world found themselves being laid off along the way, thus populating many communities in the process of looking for work.

Ores were being discovered across the province, the mines were opening up, smelters were being built, and this gave rise to new railways, the introduction of paddle-steamers, and the building of roads. This in turn increased the need for lumber, metals and coal to fuel the steam locomotives. All of these industries were dangerous, dirty and required large workforces of cheap labour to make them profitable.

Most of the Italian immigrants headed out West for work were predominantly peasants speaking local dialects and very little English.

It was a hard grim time for all migrant workers in the West, but especially difficult for non-Anglo-Canadian workers who bore the brunt of prejudices, unsavoury hiring practises and lived in deplorable conditions. It was a lonely life for single and married males without family, and often the void was filled with the usual vices that eroded their financial resources.

First Settlements of Italians in The Kootenays.

In the late 1800's, rich ore deposits were found in the Kootenay area of British Columbia, coal was plentiful and in great demand. American Industrialists built several railroads to the Kootenay mines. The Canadian Pacific Railroad not wishing to miss out on the business, built a main freight line across Canada through the Crowsnest Pass and into South Eastern British Columbia. Many of the labourers employed to build the railroad were Italian immigrants. When the line was completed or they lost their jobs, they settled in the region working in the mines, sending for their families and building homes.

Italian immigrants arrive in Trail in the West Kootenays.
South of the border in the United States, a similar expansion of resource industries and railways also required a large work-force of cheap labour. It was not uncommon for Italian workers to come into the United States from Latin America (or other countries), work in some of the industrial towns such as Pittsburgh, and then hearing of better work prospects elsewhere, move. Sometimes travelling hundreds of miles.

The Canadian Border at the end of the Nineteenth Century was almost invisible to American Capitalist Robber-Barons and Railroad Magnates, who eyed up opportunities North of the 49th and could easily grease the political wheels with their wealth and influence bringing their workforces with them.

By the 1880's, Montana's ores were making Butte the centre of the North West mining industry. Capitalists George Hearst, Standard Oil's J. D. Rockefeller, and local banker William A Clark were among the many backers of Irishman Marcus Daly's mining, smelting and railroad enterprises, providing lots of work for immigrants and their families.

The majority of immigrant labourers were housed at the smelting town of Anaconda, many of them including the Italian immigrants brought their families with them. There were lots of supplemental jobs for the women folk, and having catholism in common with many of the Irish families enjoyed a better quality of life.

When the young maverick capitalist F. Augustus Heinze sided with the workers and won his challenge to the conglomerate's monopoly of ores, he was seeking to expand his industrial holdings. The Jacks (Cornishmen) and Irish miners got wind of the colossal ore body at Rossland and many left for Canada, arriving in Trail Creek, and establishing a shanty area called Dublin Gulch.

Heinze travelled to Trail Creek and decided to invest in a smelter and a railroad.

In the Anaconda Mine, Daniele Martinelli also heard of the Rossland Claim and Heinze's new smelter, arriving in Trail Creek in 1896. Issaco Georgetti arrived 1897*, building the 'Montana Hotel' in 1902*.Families followed settling in the 'Gulch', building a community of homes and businesses.

With the discovery of ores, coal, and railroads, the Kootenay settlements like many other communities across Canada and the USA reflected the pattern of the first migrants establishing "ethnic beachheads" and stimulated further migration from their home villages. The word spread and many more Italian immigrants came to Trail.

A hundred years ago the immigration laws did not limit the number of family members, and because Canada needed cheap labour, immigrants were not required to have specific skills. Some families brought as many relatives that were willing to make the journey, sometimes whole villages of families came together.

Women folk joined their husbands, fathers, brothers, who often had the dowries of female family members and were responsible for their well-being as well as finding a suitable future husband. Extended families re-united in Canada. Many women made the journey unchaperoned, some arrived to find that their intended had moved on or worse still had passed on.

Needless to say that their were very few children until relatives brought them with them. There were however, many documented stories of teenagers and children some as young as ten, making the arduous journey alone in order to be with their next of kin.

Travelling to the Kootenays a hundred years ago meant catching Trains or ridng a horse to a Port and crossing the Atlantic. Then across Canada by train, horse, steamer, train sternwheeler, train, horse or on foot to get to the West Kootenays.

Italian immigrants now work for Cominco and all employment roads lead to Trail.
Heinze sold his interest in the smelter and railroad to the CPR, who in turn sold them to Cominco in 1906.

By the time World War I had broken out, there were multi-cultural immigrant settlements all over the Kootenays, immigration slowed down, some immigrants went back to Italy, others enlisted. Cominco now owner of several mines and the Trail smelter was the largest employer in the Kootenays. Italian immigrants had put down roots, houses replaced shacks and Trail's first generation of Italian-Canadians were born.

The first hundred years of Italian settlement in Trail is celebrated in The Colombo Lodge Centennial Mural that is featured in the next set of web pages.


*Trail Memories - Trail Historical Society

Mercier/ Anaconda: Labor, Community and Culture in Montana's Smelter City.