Sunday, October 23, 2011

“Patihi, Patahé!” The Camuni of Brescia in Monongahela City: Part I

Old steamers on the Monongahela River
Borrowed from the archives of 'Poche Parole' (March 2009), the newsletter of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington D.C.

Summary of a talk by ICS member Terry Necciai at the American Italian Cultural Institute of Pittsburgh, (AMICO) Feb 15, 2009

The first of two articles

“The Daily Republican, 18 November 1892 — MONONGAHELA CITY, PA — The Italians living here joined in the celebration of the town’s centennial by raising a large Italian flag. The celebrating … being over, the Italians refused to take their flag down, and trouble was brewing over the incident. It is not known what would have been the consequences had not Mayor Huston compelled the colony to put the American flag on top of the Italian banner.” (Quoted from an earlier piece in the Pittsburgh Times)

By the 1860s, engineers around the world had learned, through “coking,” how to purify coal enough to replace charcoal in the iron smelting process. In places like Pittsburgh, iron masters built large smelting furnaces in the city, speeding up manufacturing operations, making iron less costly, and replacing primitive furnaces that had operated for years in the mountains. In some mountainous areas of Italy where there was no coal and where charcoal-fired iron had been made for centuries, the transition away from charcoal triggered the demise of the local economy.

As jobs became scarce in the province of Brescia, hundreds of families immigrated to the United States. Some of the first immigrants found work in the small, aging, riverfront mines around Monongahela City, a small town an hour south of Pittsburgh, by the mid-1880s. The first immigrants may have been Bersaglieri or Alpini veterans of the Risorgimento. According to a theory put forward by Don Franco Bontempi, the current parish priest in the Brescian town of Ono San Pietro, they may have been inspired by the fact that President Lincoln had offered Garibaldi a position in the Union Army, in 1861, at a point when the fires of the Risorgimento appeared to have died down. Brescians continued to come to Monongahela until the 1920s because it was one of few places in the world where their dialect (Camuno-Brescian) could be understood. They also found their way to this one town, following friends and relatives. Even today, in certain communities in the Brescian mountains, the name “Monongahela” is well-known, perhaps because many families have kept and handed-down letters from loved ones with the name in the return address (Some Brescians refer to the Pennsylvania locality as “Mononga-elapà,” not knowing that the last two letters in the address stand for the name of the state). Most of the Brescians who came to Monongahela City were from the Val Camonica and the smaller tributary valleys to the east and west of it, an area that comprises the northern two-thirds of the province of Brescia. A 60-mile-long industrial valley in the Alps, the Val Camonica has about a hundred towns and villages clustered around iron furnaces, water-powered forges, wine presses, and other traditional manufacturing facilities. In addition to iron and other metals, as well as table wine, the valley is also known for its cheese and sausages.

Italians may have been among the earliest settlers of Western Pennsylvania. At least two travel writers, as they passed through the area in 1803 and 1806, mentioned an Italian component in local culture as if Italian immigrants were already living in Pittsburgh by then, but research has not been successful in identifying specific familes. A group Passionist Fathers came to Pittsburgh in 1845 to serve the local Catholic community, which, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, consisted almost exclusively of Irish and German immigrants. Many immigrants from iron manufacturing areas in Germany had come by the 1840s to work in the Pittsburgh iron industry. However, it was not until after the onset of the Panic of 1873 that groups of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began to show up in large numbers as a new pool of workers. Unstable conditions, particularly in the smaller coal mines between Monongahela City and Pittsburgh, made seasonal jobs available for incoming workers. One well-documented episode in immigration history was a shoot-out that occurred in 1874, at a mine in the village of Buena Vista about 12 miles northeast of Monongahela City and 22 miles south of Pittsburgh, between a group of Italian families who had been hired as workers to break a small-scale strike and the local people whose jobs they were hired to take. Based on their names, this group of Italians appears to have been from near the Swiss border.


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