By Helen Papanikolas

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 also formed.

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 combat.

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.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.