Even before Colorado joined the union, word was spreading across Europe and other places that opportunity awaited in America. Word got out that work and good wages were here if people were only willing to take a chance and leave their homes for a place that offered the fulfillment of dreams.
As demand for labor grew in the late 19th century, more than 20 million men, women and children left home for this new land. New immigrants were also lining up for work in the southern Colorado mines that were pumping out everything from “A to Zinc.” Coal from mines south of Pueblo were priming furnaces for what would later become Colorado’s first steel mill.
Newly arrived immigrants would write relatives in their home country about opportunity, said Victoria Miller, curator of Pueblo’s Steelworks Center of the West. “They would tell them about the wonderful life here in America,” she said.
Soon Pueblo and the nearby region were teeming with immigrants who brought with them their own languages, religions and customs. Steel and the minerals extracted from the ground were responsible for so many of the towns---Aguilar, Gardner, Weston and others---that once percolated but have slowly watched a population exodus. But Pueblo thrived.
“Pueblo became this little microcosm,” said Miller. By 1916, “the CF&I (the steel mill) documented 42 different languages” among its workforce. The company began offering English classes “so they could communicate with each other.” It also offered dance and music classes to its new workers and their families.
While steel and mining were where most new arrivals found work, other new immigrants branched out. The DeLuca brothers came here from the Calabria region of southern Italy. Francesco DeLuca arrived first in 1911 and took a job in a zinc smelter, said granddaughter, Diana DeLuca-Armstrong. “They came here young and were ready to do just about anything.”
The smelter job was brief. In 1915 DeLuca opened a grocery store in Blende, a farming community just outside Pueblo. Other DeLuca brothers followed. “Three of them opened stores,” said DeLuca-Armstrong. “One was a farmer and one opened The Silver Moon,” a long-ago Pueblo night spot. “Pueblo had its own Little Italy,” she said. The grocery store, DeLuca Grocery & Market remains opened today in the same location.
The lure of employment in steel and mining in the early part of the 20th century secured Pueblo and the region’s ethnic diversity which also included a thriving, home-grown Latino population. But the hub of the economic and multi-cultural wheel was ‘the mill,’ closely followed by the railroad.
The railroad was the property of William Jackson Palmer, a Pennsylvania entrepreneur and Civil War hero. Palmer came west after the Civil War and, once familiar with what southern Colorado offered, saw opportunity and parlayed it. He started the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. With the railroad up and running, his knack for business and opportunity would birth a steel mill that would blossom into one of the West’s most productive steel operations. His imagination and drive are in good part responsible for the growth and diversity that became Pueblo’s calling card.
Today’s Pueblo still reflects the wave of immigration that made the city the melting pot it is today. Still open for worship are Saint Michael’s church which served Russian arrivals and Saint John’s, the spiritual center of the Greek community. Mount Carmel Catholic, once a cradle-to-grave church for Italians, now serves a mostly Latino congregation.
The rich, quilt-like quality of Pueblo is also evident in some of its communities. No matter where they’ve gone or how long they have been away, Puebloans know the names Goat Hill, The Grove, Salt Creek, Bojan Town and Bessemer, all turn-of-the-century ethnic enclaves with their own unique flavor. “When you came from the old country,” said Miller, “you tended to be around people like you with religion, culture and language.”
The Steelworks Center of the West documents the genesis of Pueblo’s economic engine, the CF&I. But the city’s El Pueblo Museum also has a riveting story to tell about the role Latinos and the mosaic of other immigrants played in the city’s history. Both are opened 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday through the year.