Immigrants Seek Out the American Dream

Immigrants Seeking the American Dream

Although many of the Italian immigrants that came to America settled in major cities such as New York, others made their way out west.

For almost 150 years Reno, Nevada, has had an Italian American presence. After arriving in American ports on the West and East Coasts, the immigrants sought out areas of the United States where the climate would be similar to the Mediterranean climate they had left behind in Europe. Northwestern Nevada’s dry, mountainous terrain is similar to many of the provinces in northern Italy.

Initially, Italians streamed into the area to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After the completion of the railroad in 1869, Italian immigrants continued to move to the area in significant numbers to work at the local ranches and lumber yards. This trend lasted through the first few decades of the twentieth century. The many small businesses run by northern Nevada’s Italian Americans provided a means of achieving financial stability and social mobility among its members. Many local Italians opened shops, restaurants and worked in numerous skill trades.

Another important project was the Roosevelt Dam, the US’s first project under the Federal Reclamation Act. It is the tallest masonry dam in the world and is located on the Salt River in Arizona. The dam’s design required each block of stone to be precisely cut and shaped. Stonemasons from Italy were sought out and hired for the demanding job. The first stone, weighing six tons, was set on September 20, 1906 by Italian stonemasons. Although construction was hampered by floods throughout the building process, the Roosevelt Dam was completed in February, 1911. Four years later, the reservoir was full and water was released over the spillways.

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Along with New York and Chicago, Toronto, Canada has been a primary destination for the Italian immigrants. Italian migration to the city began in the late 19th century and drastically increased after World War II, leading to the establishment of a substantial community today.

From the 1890s and into the early-20th century, employment was available in railway construction and maintenance, mining, agriculture and similar sectors. Italian men could come to Canada using the padrone or labor agent system – they paid private agents who arranged their travel documents, transportation, housing and employment in Canada. For some Italian men, their previous experience with stonemasonry and excavations, matched the needs of the growing city and by 1915 there were 12,000 Italians in Toronto. The Italian community in Toronto grew to 300,000 by the 1980s.

Labor in the Northeast

In Newark, NJ, the 1880 census showed only 407 Italians in the city. But by 1910, there were 20,000 Italians. As earlier immigrants, or their sons, rose to positions of leadership in the building trades, they needed workers and it was Italians that took on these backbreaking jobs, eager to prove themselves in the land of the free. Those with skills entered as barbers and while those with masonry skills were invaluable to the growing city. Many other Italian immigrants in Newark turned to clothing manufacturing, jewelry making and leather tanning.

About thirty minutes away from Newark, is the American Labor Museum. It is housed in the 1908 Botto House National Landmark. The Botto House was built for and owned by an Italian immigrant and silk mill worker, Pietro Botto and his wife Maria. They were employed in Paterson, NJ known at the time as ‘Silk City.’ From the balcony of the Botto House in 1913, labor union organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) addressed 20,000 silk mill workers who were on strike, seeking an eight-hour workday.  Because it served as a haven for free speech and assembly for these laborers, the Botto House was placed on the State and National Register of Historic Sites in 1975. In 1983, it opened to the public as a museum dedicated to teaching the public about the history and contemporary issues of workers, the workplace and organized labor. The Botto House is located at 83 Norwood St, Haledon, NJ.

Although not specifically labor related, the Dorothea’s House was established on February 6, 1913. It was a memorial to Dorothea van Dyke McLane, a volunteer social worker who ministered to the needs of Princeton’s newly arrived Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. After her untimely death at the age of 23, her father, Dr. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor and her husband Guy Richard McLane, a New York City stockbroker, formed and incorporated the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association to serve Princeton’s growing Italian community.

The House provided a base for Princeton’s early Italian immigrants, offering not only social and educational opportunities, but help with housing and employment. Beginning in the ’30s and to present day, Dorothea’s House has extended its services to the community by providing space to local non-profit organizations. Similar Italian culture centers exist in metropolitan areas across the United States, but Dorothea’s House is a rare example of a settlement house established in the last century that still thrives and serves the public today. It is located at 120 John St. in Princeton, NJ.

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