Author Archives: Cathy Gilmore

The Immigrants

Published / by Cathy Gilmore / Leave a Comment

write-up by Cathy Gilmore

Placed By: Carbon County Historical Society

GPS Coordinates: N 39° 35.964 W 110° 48.509

Historical Marker Text:

This monument is dedicated to Carbon County’s proud immigrant heritage. In the early part of this century, Thirty Two nationalities lived in Carbon County. Most of them came here to mine the coal. Carbon County is Utah’s melting pot. Because of its polyglot population, refined and tempered in the melting process, the religious, social, and cultural life of Carbon County has a broader, more tolerant, cosmopolitan type of lifestyle that sets it apart from the rest of Utah. These immigrants, together with the Native Americans, have left their imprint as part of this rough, often cruel, yet proud heritage.

Extended Research

“The Biggest Little City on Earth”

In the fall of 1914, contractors working for Italian immigrants Charles Bonomo and Frank Viglia broke ground on a large, two-story building on Main Street in Price, Utah.[1] Large enough for their own grocery store and several tenants, the Viglia-Bonomo building symbolized a tangible and permanent presence for the former miners. For Charles, who spent his first thirteen years in America in the shallow, back-breaking coal fields of Kankakee, Illinois, it must have been satisfying to see another man swinging a shovel instead of him.

Near an Italian bakery, a Greek saloon, a Russian mercantile, and a French farm store, the Viglia-Bonomo building was home to a multitude of religious, ethnic, and national identities that earned Price the title of “the biggest little city on earth.”[2]  Called “Utah’s Ellis Island” by historian Philip F. Notarianni, Carbon County was the gathering point for not just the Bonomo and Viglia families, but the gateway through which thirty-two different nationalities entered.[3] A jewel of diversity amidst the largely homogeneous landscape of Utah’s pioneer settlements, Carbon County’s distinct immigrant identity reveals a history that is both exemplary and cautionary. The experiences of the Viglia and Bonomo families are illustrative of both the trials and triumphs experienced by immigrants of Carbon County in the early 20th century; their photos and records—generously provided by the descendants of Charles Bonomo—will be shared in this essay.[4]

Margaret Corigliano with Charles Bonomo in 1901

The First Immigrants

In 1882, rail workers searching for a route from Denver to Salt Lake City discovered coal in what is now Carbon County, transforming the sparsely-settled Price river from a scenic canyon into a worldwide labor destination. Immigrants, eager to fill the demand for cheap mine labor, poured in from Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia. By 1900 Castle Gate became a floodgate, with immigrants from fourteen countries laboring in coal camps in Winter Quarters, Castle Gate, Sunnyside, and Clear Creek.

Bound together by cultural, social, and economic ties, immigrants initially lived and worked in communities that reflected their countries of origin. Slovenians initially arrived as railroad workers, then switched to coal mining to fill in the labor gap. South Slavs moved to Helper to grow their business ventures, and Finnish immigrants settled Pleasant Valley in the 1890s to work the mines in Winter Quarters and Clear Creek. At the same time, Northern Italians worked the Castle Gate mine, after which the Greeks immigrated in 1904 to replace the striking Italians. French from the Hautes-Alpes and Pyrenees prospered as sheep and goat herders. Japanese laborers, who initially arrived to work the railroads, also found success as coal miners and farmers.

The earliest of Carbon County’s mining immigrants were most vulnerable to poverty, discrimination, and poor working conditions. Language and cultural barriers inhibited immigrants from effectively advocating for improved conditions and fair labor practice. Desperate for shelter, some miners converted rail cars into homes and built hastily constructed enclosures made of tar and paper. Italians lived in “Rag Town,” a tent community in Sunnyside, and until 1915, most mining camps lacked water and electricity.

Most early immigrants to Carbon County arrived as recruits of labor agents seeking workers within their home countries. Many families of these first immigrants eventually followed, creating a ragged chain of relocation that spanned many years. Other paths to Carbon County, like those of Charles Bonomo and Greek immigrant Yoryis Zisimopoulos, took a more circuitous route. Their paths convey the often fluid, transient nature of immigrant life that many experienced before finally calling Carbon County their home.

Corigliano family with Charles Bonomo (front right)

“Pleased with Price”

When the coal seam in Kankakee, Illinois ran out in 1900, Charles migrated west to the mines in Las Animas County, Colorado, where he married Trinidad resident Margaret Corigliano. Over the ensuing years, Charles abandoned mining and entered the saloon business in Rock Springs, Wyoming where his mother and siblings immigrated. In 1908, Margaret separated from Charles and moved to Price, Utah. Charles, now the owner of a successful saloon on Front Street, sought further investments and like many in the intermountain region, he had his eye on Price, Utah.[5]

Frank Viglia with wife Anna Bernardi on July 14, 1914

In early 1914, two Italian businessmen drove from Rock Springs to Price, Utah on an entrepreneurial mission.[6] Price residents and first-generation Italian merchants Frank Grosso and Frank Viglia hosted the visitors, and procured the help of Lars Anderson, a local contractor, to chauffeur the visitors around Price. The businessmen returned to Rock Springs with favorable reports, and a short time later, Charles Bonomo moved to Price and established a partnership with Frank Viglia, a relative through marriage and a former resident of Rock Springs. With his move to Price, Charles was also reunified with his wife and daughter Mary. It was a triumphant, if not tenuous, fresh start.

Greek immigrant Yoryis Zisimopoulos (George Zeese) held fifteen jobs in over ten locales across the U.S. before settling in Helper, Utah. Photo courtesy of Ancestry.

The story of Greek immigrant Yoryis Zisimopoulos is likewise a series of dead ends and new beginnings.[7] After unknowingly taking a job as a strikebreaker in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he quit and moved to Oklahoma City, then to Pueblo to work for Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. After several miners were killed, and with more Italians, Greeks, and Slavs ready to take their place, Yoryis, now calling himself George Zeese, crisscrossed the nation over the next several years working in mines, farms, railroads and coffeehouses. Suffering from corrupt labor agents, lack of work, and bad luck, he had yet to find lasting success. Ten years and fifteen jobs later, he finally found a home for his wife and growing family in Helper, Utah, where he and his business partner purchased the first of eleven Success Markets. Carbon County, at last, was the right place.

A Connected Journey

The paths of immigrants like Charles Bonomo and Yoryis Zisimopoulos suggest the interconnected nature of the broader intermountain region that relied heavily on family and social networks. Many immigrants entered Carbon County not as fresh-faced coal miners, but as seasoned entrepreneurs who opened restaurants, purchased property, or managed stores. As Elliott Barkan suggests, “the fact that many persons were migrating not only from outside the region but also crisscrossing and resettling within the West suggest that such persons could well have established bonds that threaded the different parts of the region together, along with the many economic connections that were materializing.”[8]

For enterprising immigrants in Carbon County, family and social ties were vital in generating opportunities for collaboration and business partnerships. Postcards from Hiawatha, cards from New Mexico, and photos from Trinidad and Rock Springs that survive from the Bonomo family give evidence of strong immigrant family networks of which Carbon County was a part.

Identity and Integration

Beyond family ties, immigrants in Carbon County found strength and unity in forming fraternal organizations, labor unions, bands, and sports teams that identified with their home countries. These groups functioned to foster national pride, ensure security, and ensure cultural maintenance.[9] Gathering places like coffeehouses, restaurants, pool houses, saloons, and saunas, strengthened social ties both within and beyond their national identities. The relocation of religion to houses of worship was especially vital to the Italian and Greek communities in reestablishing ritual as a public, communal event.[10]

Frank Vigia with his brothers, wife, and children in 1914, a few years after they left the camp town of Sunnyside where Frank worked as a delivery man for a dry goods store. This portrait was taken on 15 July 1914, the same month Frank Viglia and Charles Bonomo purchased the lot for their new grocery building. Rear left to right: Frank, Peter, Alex, and Sam Viglia. Front left to right: Lotta, Anna Bernardi Viglia, Albert, and Mary Viglia. From the Viglia-Bonomo Papers.

While language barriers confined many immigrants to their own neighborhoods, school, social events, and even funerals encouraged intermingling beyond their immediate communities. Some immigrant children attended Mormon Primary classes despite their religion or nationality, while other immigrant adults preferred the familiarity of their own religions. Most mining camps welcomed regular visits from Catholic and Greek priests who performed ad hoc mass services in amusement halls. Castle Gate built their own Catholic church and Sunnyside welcomed a Catholic mission.

Despite these advances, mining work—and the society that came with it—often undercut immigrants’ ability to be recognized as first-class citizens. Long-time residents were concerned about the outflow of money to foreign countries, and the foreign influences that were flowing in. While many were welcomed, many residents resented the instability that the labor agents and mine owners generated.

Mine owners themselves contributed to this tension by showing a preference for unorganized, uneducated labor and willingness to exploit nationalities and regions against one another. With the help of private employment agencies or independent labor contractors, a steady stream of cheap, unorganized migrant labor could always be ensured. As Frank Van Nuys explains, “agents [were not] averse to exploiting inter- and intraethnic antagonisms on behalf of management, for instance when a labor contractor imported mainland Greeks to break a Carbon County, Utah copper strike led by islanders from Crete in 1912. The influx of different groups, in Utah for example, frequently began with strike-breaking: Finns, Italians, and Slavs for English, Welsh, Irish, and Americans in the 1890s, Greeks for the Italians and Yugoslavians in 1903, and Mexicans for the Greeks in 1922.”[11] For many immigrants like Charles Bonomo and George Zeese, the answer was to leave mining behind and integrate themselves into the business community.

The Grocer Next Door

The respect and acceptance Carbon County immigrants could not obtain through coal became achievable with brick and mortar. The arrival of women to establish households, the growth of second-generation immigrants, and the abandonment of mine labor all contributed to greater integration of immigrants within their communities. The town of Helper was especially welcoming to immigrant merchants. In 1903, the Helper Gazetteer listed five foreign merchants, but by 1919, that number had grown to thirty-five—over half of all businesses listed.[12] Compelled to engage with all residents of Carbon County through business transactions, immigrants transformed from the temporary foreign worker to the grocer next door.

Not every business was welcome, however. The same year Charles Bonomo moved to Price, E.A. Horsley, President of the Carbon County Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decried the influence of saloons in Helper and Price, saying, “I saw men [in Helper] on the Sabbath Day lying around in a drunken condition…Conditions in Price may not be of the best, but in the language of the street Helper ‘had us skinned seven blocks’ …So much unfavorable notoriety has been published from this town that when I go into Salt Lake and people ask me where I am from and I say Price, they exclaim, ‘Oh, for Lord’s sake!’”[13] In the end, Horsley was not successful in convincing Carbon County to become “dry”.

Charles Bonomo’s in-laws in the saloon business in Trinidad, Colorado. The Corigliano brothers c1910.

Becoming “American”

Stuck between maintaining cultural ties and adapting to their American environment, immigrants in Carbon County struggled to identify and achieve what was becoming the moving target of Americanism. As Philip Notorianni explains,

“The desire for cultural maintenance was natural, but the realities of the new environment often produced irony in the attempt. In trying to maintain and foster cultural ties, immigrants altered or adapted to new conditions, customs, traditions, and beliefs; thus their practices were assuming new meaning and form. Gradual change occurred as immigrants came into contact with American institutions and ideas, but those who favored 100 percent “Americanization” of the new immigrants sought to expedite the process by the abrupt stripping away of cultural differences.”[14]

The Greeks and Italians were especially nationalistic and saw themselves as emissaries of their native culture. Mark I. Choate explains the nature of Italian emigration as an expansion of Italy itself: “For the Italian state, emigration represented not just physical movement beyond the Italian peninsula, but a cultural and economic enlargement of Italy worldwide….At the high point of Italian migration from 1880 to World War I, the Italian state viewed migration as a form of colonialism…”.[15] This competing nationalism suggests that the Italians not only wanted to become American, they sought to make America more Italian. With each passing generation, however, immigrant families inevitably adapted while their native identities diminished over time.

Through the lens of clothing and aesthetics, the following photos from the Viglia Bonomo Papers suggest a hybrid of both Italian and American identities.

The Price Boys

Despite significant strides by many immigrants in Carbon County, many still received criticism for not being “American” enough. The advent of World War I further amplified this rhetoric as concerns over loyalty emerged. By 1917, the move toward Americanization merged with the war effort, amplifying expectations that immigrants should display their loyalty to America through war service. As nativist sentiment grew across America, the pressure of war emphasized the responsibility of the foreign-born to do all of the melting in the melting pot.[16]

Immigrant enlistment in World War I was one avenue that instantly silenced calls for immigrant Americanization. Brothers Sam and Alex Viglia were among many Carbon County residents to enlist, earning them credibility and admiration among Price’s citizens. Carbon County newspapers gave updates on their war service, including family members in Price who shared postcards and letters with the local papers.

Following World War I, nativist sentiment increased dramatically, resulting in a more restrictive immigration policy, mandated “Americanization” classes, and greater hostility toward minority groups—especially southern European immigrants. For many immigrants of Carbon County, it was a time of contingency. By the 1920’s Charles Bonomo was a successful merchant and real estate investor. His family chose to remain in Price. Following some legal challenges related to the Viglia-Bonomo building, Frank Viglia and his family moved to San Francisco in 1924. Two of Frank’s brothers returned to Italy, married, and raised families. Another branch of the Viglia family moved to Mexico to escape the discrimination they faced in the New Mexico mines.  

Charles Bonomo’s path to Carbon County was not a  simple one: the currents that guided him to settle in Price were a mix of family dynamics, economic opportunity geography, and connectedness to their Italian relations and friends. His story—like stories of most Carbon County immigrants—has elements both unique and typical to the immigrant experience. In the end, Carbon County largely embraced immigrants like Charles and gave space to the complex and diverse identities that exist today. Historian Sarka B. Hrbkova acknowledges this complexity, writing, “It is indeed a problem to make Americans of these surging, ebbing, responsive, sullen, singing, cursing, sorrowing, carousing, harmonious, disputatious elements, some coming from lands of liberal thought, others from age-old autocracies—all of them with dreams of a more or less realizable Utopia, which the magic word ‘America’ spells to them.”[17] The tolerant and progressive nature found in Carbon County was that sort of Utopia for many, setting it apart from the rest of Utah in its broad embrace of what it means to be a Utahn.

Notes

[1] The Carbon County News, “City and County,”  November 11, 1914. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/31022342/the_carbon_county_news

[2] Carbon County News, “Why You Should Invest Your Money in and Live in Price, Utah” November 11 1913, 8. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/31020374.  The phrase “biggest little city on the earth” began to appear in Carbon County newspapers in 1913, and was added to the masthead of the Eastern Utah Advocate on 3 July 1913 when the newspaper came under new ownership.

[3] Philip F. Notarianni, “Utah’s Ellis Island: The Difficult Americanization of Carbon County,” Utah Historical Quarterly Vol 47, no. 2 (Spring 1979), 178-192.

[4] Except where noted, all images are from the Viglia-Bonomo Archive, Kindex, https://bonomo.kindex.org/. Original owner, Kay Cafarelli, granddaughter of Charles Bonomo. Original papers in possession of family friend Christina Mickleson. Digitized and archived by Cathy Gilmore, owner Kindex LLC. For further information on these families see their family tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/120287259/family.

[5] Carbon County News, “Our Reasons Why You Should Invest Your Money in and Live in Price, Utah”. The article touts its progressive citizens, schools and religious institutions, business savvy, and rich natural resources as reasons to invest in Carbon County.

[6] The Carbon County News, “Pleased with Price”, April 9 1914, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30288569/the_carbon_county_news/

[7] Elliott Barkan, From All Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870s-1952, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007), 39-40.

[8] Elliott Barkan, From All Points, 115

[9] Notarianni, “Utah’s Ellis Island”, 7

[10] Elaine M. Bapis, In the Hands of Women: Home Alter Tradition in Utah’s Greek Orthodox Homes, Utah Historical Quarterly, 65, (Fall: 1997), 312-334

[11] Frank Van Nuys, Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930. (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2002), 71.

[12] Ronald G. Watt, A History of Carbon County, (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1997) 212.

[13] Eastern Utah Advocate, “President Horsely Wants a Closed Town,” March 12 1914, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30976950/eastern_utah_advocate/

[14] Notarianni, “Utah’s Ellis Island”, 8.

[15] Mark I. Choate, “The Frontier Thesis in Transnational Migration: The U.S. West in the Making of Italy Abroad” in Immigrants of the Far West: Historical Identities and Experiences, Ed. by Jessie L. Embry and Brian Q. Cannon. (Salt Lake City:  University of Utah Press,  2015), 365.

[16] Van Nuys, Americanizing the West, 68.

[17] Van Nuys, Americanizing the West, 60-61.

For further reference:

Primary sources

Viglia-Bonomo Papers, private collection of Kay Cafarelli, loaned by Christina Micklesen, Salt Lake City, Utah. Digital images hosted courtesy of Kindex at viglia.kindex.org.

Secondary Sources

Alexander, Thomas G. “From Dearth to Deluge, Utah’s Coal Industry,” Utah Historical Quarterly 31 (1963).

Bapis, Elaine M. “In the Hands of Women: Home Altar Tradition in Utah’s Greek Orthodox Homes.” Utah Historical Quarterly 65 (1997): 312-34.

Barkan, Elliot. From All Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870s–1952. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007.

Carbon County Commission Company. “Our Reasons Why You Should Invest Your Money in and Live in Price, Utah.” Carbon County News. November 11 1913. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/31020374.

Choate, Mark I. “The Frontier Thesis in Transnational Migration: The U.S. West in the Making of Italy Abroad” in Immigrants of the Far West: Historical Identities and Experiences, edited by Jessie L. Embry and Brian Q. Cannon. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015.

“City and County.” The Carbon County News. October 1 1914. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/31022342/the_carbon_county_news/.

Eastern Utah Advocate. “President Horsley Wants Closed Town.” Newspapers.com. March 12 1914. Accessed April 26, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30976950/eastern_utah_advocate.

Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Notarianni. Philip F. “Italianita in Utah: The Immigrant Experience,” in Helen Papanikolas, The Peoples of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Historical Society, 1976.

Notarianni, Philip F. “Utah’s Ellis Island: The Difficult Americanization of Carbon County.” Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1979.

Orsi, Robert Anthony. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

“Pleased with Price.” The Carbon County News. April 9 1914. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30288569/the_carbon_county_news.

Van Nuys, Frank. Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Vecali, Rudolph J. “European Americans: From Immigrants to Ethnics,” in William H. Cartwright and Richard L. Watson, Jr., eds., The Reinterpretation of American History and Culture. Washington, D.C: National Council for the Social Studies, 1973.

Watt, Ronald G. A History of Carbon County. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1997.