By Rebecca A. Hunt
From its beginnings, the Northside has been a center of ethnic diversity. Last month I told you the story of the Irish. Now, I will spend some time on the Italians, when and how they came to Denver and their role in creating the special character that has been a hallmark of our section of the city.
Records show that the Garbarino brothers, who came by way of St. Louis, were the first Italians to come to Denver, arriving in 1859. Unofficial population counts in the early 1870s showed small increases of both working- class and upper-class Italian immigrants.
Those who came from Northern Italy tended to have more education, have professions, and became leaders in both the community and the city beyond. The Notary and Damascio families were builders and Frank Damascio ran the team of workmen who installed terrazzo floors in the Brown Palace and other major Denver buildings.
Many others were doctors, lawyers, journalists, and bankers. Peter Albi started as a grocer then opened the Italian National Bank which stood at Central and 15th streets. Peter also started a newspaper called Roma. Rodolfo Albi was a doctor.
Angelo Capelli ran the first Italian restaurant in Denver, at the corner of 15th and Platte streets. In 1871, he celebrated the anniversary of Italian unification at his restaurant. We now know it as My Brother’s Bar. The bulk of the Italians began to arrive in the period between 1890 and the early 20th century. They were largely from the south, from all of the areas surrounding Naples, but especially from the southeast, from Potenza in Basilicata.
In 1899 there were about 700 people from the Italian south who lived in the Northside. By 1901 that number had reached 2000. In fact, there were so many people from around Potenza that they eventually started their own regional organization, the Societa Nativi di Potenza.
The southern Italians were mostly laborers and farmers back home. They had been part of a group that made their living by farming in the south during part of the year then going north in the summer to work in agriculture or industry.
Like many of their countrymen, in the late 1800s, they added the United States to their travel and work destinations. The idea was to earn enough money to send some home to help the family and to save for buying farms or small businesses. Many of these “birds of passage” returned home, but others found life in America suited them.
Many of the jobs were building railroad and streetcar tracks and digging the routes for streets in Denver neighborhoods. Some Italians eventually did well enough to buy a piece of land in the newer parts of North Denver and build a small house for their growing families. Often, to make ends meet, they rented out rooms to newer arrivals.
The 1900 census detailed the residents at Gerard Lasalo’s house at 1719 W 33rd Ave. He had arrived in 1891 and was now a widower who had three children. In addition, there was a couple with a baby. The mother of the baby was listed as a laborer. Another couple had a child on the way. Both of those families had come in the last three years.
Where the Lasalo house once stood is now the pine grove just behind the St. Patrick Oratory, at 33rd Avenue and Pecos Street. This was once the site of the Second St. Patrick Church that I mentioned in my December article. The house is marked with a blue square on the 1908 map. In the Northside, immigrants started out as laborers with some moving into agriculture.
The D’Amato family began working in the iron mines of Sunrise, Wyoming before coming to Denver. They eventually started their family farm in Adams County near 50th Avenue and Washington Street. When Genevieve D’Amato married John Fiore, they moved into a 1920s bungalow in Potter Highlands. Next month I will share the story of how the Italians built their close-knit community. Stay tuned.
Dr. Rebecca A. Hunt has been a Denver resident since 1985. She worked in museums and then taught Colorado, Denver and immigration history at the University of Colorado Denver until she retired in 2020.