By David F. Rooney
Almost a century ago an obscure Italian immigrant named Angelo Conte was killed while working on the CPR’s Connaught Tunnel. He was just one of the many Europeans who came here seeking a chance to earn a living and his death in 1915 barely merited a mention in newspapers of the day. It’s no surprise then that even his family did not know what really happened to him.
Angelo’s death in the New World remained a mystery until last year when his great-grandson, Italian filmmaker Nicola Moruzzi, discovered 50 letters Angelo had written to his young wife, Anna, while he was in Canada.
Intrigued, Nicola travelled to Vancouver, Kamloops and, ultimately, Revelstoke find out more about his ancestor’s life and death. While the final result promises to be a touching documentary film, Revelstoke: A Kiss in the Wind, Nicola recently sat down with me to talk about what has been for him a remarkable journey of discovery.
“Anna was pregnant with my grandmother when Angelo left his home town of Valstagna in the Province of Vicenza in Veneto in northern Italy in 1913,” Nicola said. “We know from his letters — there are 50 of them that we discovered in a closet — that he loved her very much. He always signed his letters, ‘Tuo per sempre, (yours forever), Angelo.’ And his very last letter was written just 36 hours before his death about a week before he planned to return home to Italy.”
Life in rural Italy was tough. There was little cash and few prospects. Angelo was one of the millions who left before the First World War in search of better economic prospects. His ambition took him to Kamloops and he managed to pay off his debts and send money home to Anna, but the work ran out and he eventually took a job as a labourer with the CPR in Revelstoke.
“When I think about his story I think of it as a rendezvous with death,” Nicola said.
Work in the 5.022-mile-long tunnel was very dangerous. Safety procedures were rudimentary and the explosives in use were volatile. Angelo was working as part of a crew clearing out dynamite-blasted rubble from a side tunnel during the tunnel’s construction when there was a rock fall on October 28, 1915, and he was severely injured.
“He didn’t die at once,” Nicola said. “There was an attempt to save his life, but he could not be saved.”
Angelo was just 28. Anna never received any more letters from the man she loved and their daughter Gigetta never met her daddy. And beyond the fact of Angelo’s death, his family knew almost nothing until Nicola came here last fall to research his great-grandfather’s death and learn more about the Italian immigrant experience in Canada. Please click here to read a previous story about Nicola’s project.
“It’s a bit like closing a circle,” he said before leaving our interview to visit his great-grandfather’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery — a grave no one had visited for almost 100 years.
Here’s a teaser about Nicola’s film project:
Nicola plans to shoot the film this autumn and while he has some of the funds he needs to finish this project he is seeking additional investors.