THE GREEKS IN UTAH
Holy Trinity Greek ORthodox Church, Salt Lake City
Of the three Greeks listed in the census figures of 1900, one, Leonidas
Skliris, opened the boundaries of Utah to his countrymen. Skliris had learned
railroad construction on a Midwest railroad gang and saw the opportunity
of making a great amount of money by providing the labor needed for extensions
of railroad branch lines and the changing of narrow gauge to standard gauge
rails. The subsidiaries of the railroads, the coal mines in Carbon County
that were constantly opening new veins, as well as Bingham Canyon's enormous
increase in copper production, required thousands of men--the cheap labor
American union leaders decried. Skliris also provided strikebreakers, often
the first role of immigrants in the western United States.
Many Greeks, especially young men, were drawn to the United States (and
to Utah) by the deep-rooted poverty of their country and their traditional
duty to provide their sisters with dowries. They expected, however, to return
to the fatherland within a few years. By 1902-03 Greeks were working on
the Lucin Cutoff, as strikebreakers in Carbon County; in the Salt Lake City
Denver and Rio Grande Western and Union Pacific railroad yards. In the ensuing
years, they worked for the Utah Copper Company in Bingham, in the Murray
and Garfield smelters and the Magna mill, and on numerous railroad gangs
throughout the state. With representatives in every industrial center and
his alliances with labor agents in the surrounding states, Skliris became
the leading labor agent in the Midwest and West. Job-seekers were forced
to present notes from his office in Salt Lake City. In return, Skliris charged
each immigrant an exorbitant fee of from twenty to fifty dollars, a percentage
of it going to mine bosses. An additional monthly payment to Skliris of
a dollar was deducted from the worker's wages by the companies.
Like other Mediterranean immigrants, the Greeks experienced intense discrimination.
Their wages were lower than those of Americans, they were segregated on
railroad gangs and often assigned the more dangerous work, and they were
prohibited from living in and buying property in certain areas. The general
population, apprehensive at the sudden appearance of hundreds of dark, single
men, were openly hostile.
By 1905 thousands of Greeks had arrived in Utah; and in that year they built
a Greek church on Fourth South between Third and Fourth West. It was dedicated
to the Holy Trinity. The church stood high in the immigrant district where
Mormons had once lived. Its section was called Greek Town; Lebanese Town
was adjacent to it. A bearded, long-haired Greek priest wearing black robes,
large pectoral cross, and tall, rimless hat performed the liturgies. The
men built the church for the great Orthodox feasts of the year and to ensure
their being buried with the rites of their forebears if they died on foreign
soil. Until its construction, a priest was brought from San Francisco to
perform the liturgies. Funerals were held regularly in the church for young
men killed by falls of coal and ore, in railroad accidents, and in the smelters
and mills. One hundred fifty-three Greeks were killed between 1907 and 1960,
most of them during the period from 1910 to 1924. The men also feared being
maimed or ill; company doctors were known to amputate readily.
As the men decided to stay longer in America, they brought "picture
brides" from Greece and with them came the entire folk tradition of
their people. The families lived in neighborhoods as if they were Greek
villages. The women baked bread in outdoor domed earth ovens; they planted
large vegetable gardens and irrigated them with Utah's plentiful water;
they helped each other in births and in illnesses. Women often had several
men as boarders related either to them or to their husbands; some ran boardinghouses
while raising a large number of children. Several women were called upon
for folk cures and to deliver babies; one, called Magherou, was known throughout
the Intermountain West. Families of seven and eight children were common.
A great number of women came to Utah at the time of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
In 1916 Greek coal miners, sheepmen, and businessmen in Carbon County built
another Orthodox church, the Assumption, in Price. Soon Greek schools were
conducted in Salt Lake City and in the mining, mill, and smelter towns.
A Panhellenic union was established in Salt Lake City and another in Carbon
County. These organizations were sponsored by the Greek government to remind
the immigrants of their native country and to persuade them to return with
their savings to help the severely weakened economy of the Greek nation.
Greeks continued to come to provide the labor needs of local industry, a
service aided by Mormon leaders who counseled their members to stay on the
land. To provide services for their fellow Greeks, many immigrants left
the ranks of labor to open bakeries, coffeehouses, restaurants, hotels,
boardinghouses, and grocery stores that sold imported cheese, olive oil,
salted fish, and sweets. The 1910 census counted 4,062 Greeks in Utah, but
the great number of Greek businesses and the Greek workers on industrial
payrolls give reason to believe that the figures are incomplete. Twelve
hundred Greeks, for example, were working in the Utah Copper mine in Bingham
when the Western Federation of Miners called a strike in 1912.
The Greeks, at first maligned by American labor for taking jobs at lower
wages, soon attracted the interest of union leaders by going on strike in
1909 at the Murray smelter. In the 1912 Bingham strike the union realized
it would have to bring in the Greeks, who constituted the greatest number
of workers, or the effort would fail. The Greeks joined the strike principally
to have Leonidas Skliris removed as their representative. Even though the
strike was lost, Skliris was forced out of his lucrative position.
The year 1912 was an important one for the Greek--the Balkan Wars involving
Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria had begun and the Greeks in Utah answered Greece's
call for reservists to return to fight against their traditional enemies.
More than 200 Utah Greeks left for the homeland. Americans viewed this manifestation
of national ties as additional evidence that Greeks could never be Americanized.
As World War I began in Europe, animosity toward the new immigrants from
the Mediterranean and the Balkans increased, and reached hysterical proportions
when America entered the war. Thinking themselves merely sojourners in America,
with few of them being citizens, Greek men were initially reluctant to serve
in America's forces. The Greeks were signaled out for abuse because of the
large amounts of money they sent back to Greece, greater than that sent
by other immigrant groups. Americans also resented the marriages between
Greeks and American girls. Two lynchings of Greeks at this time barely were
prevented by countrymen: in Salt Lake City a Greek who had killed the brother
of Jack Dempsey, the boxer, was attacked as was another in Carbon County
who had given an American girl a ride in his new automobile.
Although 349 Greeks served in the America army (14 were killed) and received
instant citizenship, anti-immigrant editorials increased. The 1922 Carbon
County strike exploded in tumult. The Greeks became the most militant group
after one of their men was killed by a deputy sheriff. Union activity and,
particularly, striking were condemned as un-American; immigrants who participated
in these activities were characterized as ingrates and unfit for American
citizenship. The apogee was reached in the 1923-24 Ku Klux Klan campaigns.
The Klan burned crosses in Salt Lake City and in the industrial towns and
camps, marched down streets, sent threatening letters to businessmen, and
rampaged through Greek stores in Helper and forced out the American waitresses
and clerks and warned them not to work for Greeks. The KKK, however, lost
ground in the face of united efforts by the immigrants and the Catholic
Knights of Columbus. Discrimination became more covert.
During the Klan's heightened activity, the Castle Gate Mine Number Two exploded
killing 171 men. Forty-nine Greeks were among the dead; they left behind
forty-one children. The devastation in the Greek towns of the county was
great. Women keened at the sides of the coffins, and mass funerals were
held because the Price church was not large enough.
Greeks who had left labor to become sheepmen were especially affected by
the recession of the early 1920s. Many lost their fortunes and had to begin
again with small flocks. After this initial setback, most Greeks shared
in the spurious prosperity of the 1920s. Greeks began leaving their Greek
towns for better neighborhoods, and Greek school enrollment reflected the
continuing high birthrate. The Panhellenic unions were disbanded and replaced
by chapters of two national lodges: the American Hellenic Educational Progressive
Association (AHEPA), which made overtures toward Americanization but basically
adhered to Greek tradition, and the Greek American Progressive Association
(GAPA), which fostered conservative programs for maintaining Greek identity.
Lodges representing the various provinces in mainland Greece and Crete were
The Great Depression of the 1930s was severe for the Greeks and their children.
The coal mines in Carbon County worked half time; coal tonnage production
was at its lowest. Many Greeks, especially Cretans, left for California
looking for help from compatriots. Sheepmen had to abandon their lambs in
Denver, Kansas City, and Chicago stockyards. The price had fallen from $18.00
a head to $3.00, but few buyers appeared. Some families barely survived
by using their savings, which their old-country frugality had amassed; others
were able to do some WPA work.
Throughout the Depression, however, the obsession to preserve the Greek
culture continued with the formation of boys' and girls' auxiliaries of
the national lodges, the importation at great sacrifice of Greek teachers,
and the churches' communal dinner celebrations for the great feast days:
Christmas, Easter, and the Dormition of the Virgin. The census of 1940 showed
4,082 Greeks residents of Utah in that year, only twenty more than the 1910
figure, although the American-born children numbered 2,200.
World War II brought prosperity: the sheep industry revived, a number of
Greek women left their traditional place in the home for arms plants, and
second-generation Greek men entered the armed services--440 from the Salt
Lake congregation and 125 from the Carbon County congregation; 22 died in
After the war, there was a second spurt of immigration; but it was smaller
than the large influx during the first twenty-five years of the twentieth
century. These newer immigrants were better educated. They have shown the
same aptitude for business as the Greeks who paved the way for them earlier.
Two additional Greek Orthodox churches were added to serve the growing population--Transfiguration
in Ogden and Prophet Elias in Holladay. Greek schools, large Sunday School
classes, young people's dance groups, and the church festivals that attract
thousands of Utahns every year offer proof that Greek ethnic life, despite
a high rate of marriages outside its culture, remains a vital part of the
American-born of Greek heritage whose forebears began settling in Utah during
the first years of the twentieth century.
See: Helen Zeeze Papanikolas, Toil and Rage in a New Land: The Greek
Immigrants in Utah (1970); and "The Exiled Greeks," in Helen
Zeese Papanikolas, The Peoples of Utah (1976).