Sunday, February 17, 2013

When Farmers Became Miners

The great influx of people from what was the Trentino region of Austria before World War I was driven by economics.  After World War I when the Tyrolean Trentino region was awarded to Italy, lack of a way to earn an agrarian living only exacerbated the already entrenched out-migration of young people leaving for America.

Photo credit: josef.stuefer / / CC BY

 The Trentini people were farmers, eking out a living in the valleys of the Dolomite Alps.  When they came to the United States they didn’t congregate in cities like their neighbors the Italians.  They were a hardy outdoor people used to a life of solitude.  Not miners by tradition, yet they adapted to the underground coal mines of America.

According to Bonifacio Bolognani, the author of A Courageous People from the Dolomites, most Trentini immigrants settled in Hazelton and Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania.  West Virginia and Ohio received immigrants from Trent, as well as gold and silver mines and coal mines in Colorado.  The coal mines of Wyoming, especially in Superior, welcomed a large contingent of people from Val di Non, which is from where both of my maternal grandparents emigrated.

As Phil Roberts says on his website A New History of Wyoming, “Even before there were cowboys in the ‘Cowboy State’ there was coal.”  Trappers and explorers found, and burned coal.  Surveying a route across the mountains for the army, Captain Howard H. Stansbury saw and recorded the presence of bituminous coal in the sandstone rock hillsides of present day Rock Springs. 

Photo credit: Rock Springs sign by Georgio_flickr

Although the original route of the Union Pacific was farther north, Blackfeet, Arikara, and Sioux warriors drove the company to a more southern route controlled by the Shoshones led by Chief Washakie, who early on saw the futility of sacrificing his people to try and stop the influx of foreigners to the West.  Moving to the southern Wyoming route was fortuitous for the railroad, as seam after seam of coal spawned coal camps populated by immigrant workers to mine the black diamonds that fired the steam engines.

First was Carbon, established in Indian Territory in 1868, mined by immigrants from Lancashire. Over six thousand tons of coal were produced that first year. Higher grade coal was soon discovered in Hanna, which was established in 1890, and by 1902 Carbon was almost a ghost town. Also in 1868 the Wardell brothers brought miners from Missouri to the alkali country of Rock Spring [sic], where the coal looked to be trying to burst from the rocky hills, just waiting to be mined.

Photo credit: Miners and mule by j3net_flickr

In early days miners worked with a pick and seldom saw daylight, especially in the winter months, getting seven cents a bushel for coal.  Each miner carried his own oil lamp, a shift of them looking like a swarm of fireflies as they made their way up the hill to work in the morning, and worked by the light of a carbide lamp attached to his cap. Mules, some worth upwards of $200, spent their entire lives hauling the coal carts on rails underground. 

Children often worked in the coal mines as they had done in their home countries of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Stooped to work in the tunnels, ten or more hours a day, some had their spines fused in a bent-over position and that’s how they walked their entire lives. There was some effort to allow the mine boys to attend school, day classes in the summer and evening classes in the winter, with reports of some finishing the eighth grade.  In those days a boy became a man in the mine and never left, often working his way up through various positions.  

Rock Springs bills itself as the melting pot, and home to 56 nationalities. The reason for the city’s founding as well as its diversity, is the Union Pacific Railroad. In the days of violent labor unrest, many Chinese were brought in to work the mines and acquired the reputation of working for a lot less money and being able to survive on a bowl of rice. In 1885 there were 331 Chinese miners in Rock Springs and 150 of other nationalities.

The coal camp of Superior was founded in 1906, Reliance in 1911.  Winton’s mines were bought in 1921.  According to History of the Union Pacific Coal Mines 1868 to 1940, from coal mining’s beginning in Wyoming in 1865 when a total of 800 tons were mined to the end of the steam era, millions of tons of coal were mined in the state.

If you wish to connect with others of Tyrolean Trentino descent in America, check out the Facebook group Trentini News USA.


Andrea Downing said...

Wonderful post, Alethea. I was interested to read about the miners from Lancs. (where I lived for a few years while my husband was attending university there) since in the U.K. most of the mining industry was centred on Yorkshire and Wales. Well, of course, it's pretty dead now since people in Britain no longer need coal to heat their homes...

Nancy Oswald said...

Loved the photo of the miners with the mule. I hadn't ever thought about the connection between miners and farmers. Both jobs definately require hard work and stamina. Thanks for your post.

Renaissance Women said...

We sometimes forget what it took to open this nation. A great and powerful reminder. Thank you.

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Such interesting historical info. Must have been such a hard life for those folks. We're so lucky these days!

Erin Gray said...

Great post, Alethea. My novel, Moonshine Murder, explores the conflict between Northern Italian and Southern Austrian immigrants in Durango and Silverton, CO mining community. Thanks for sharing.