News

Canal workers at last get respect

By Allan Benner, The Standard

Sam Romano spent years searching for his great-grandfather.

Sunday afternoon, he felt as though he had finally found him.

Giovanni Moretti left his wife and daughters behind in the small town of Rocca San Giovanni in 1914, travelling to Canada for a job working on the construction of the Welland Ship Canal.

“My grandmother was his daughter, and she did not know her dad,” Romano said.

Romano’s grandmother also never knew what became of her father.

And his fate remained a mystery for generations.

When he began his search about five years ago, Romano found his great-grandfather’s name listed in a 1914 census report that showed he was then living in a St. Catharines boarding home. But the trail drew cold after that.

And Romano was left believing that his grandfather was “a bit of a coward for leaving” his family and not returning.

A cousin, however, eventually learned the reason behind his disappearance.

“He tragically died under a train” on Dec. 30, 1914. He was 43 years old — the last of nine canal workers to lose their lives that year.

Since learning his great-grandfather’s fate, “I’ve grown to have a lot of respect for him,” Romano said.

“He sort of laid the path for many, many people to come here said.”

Romano was one of hundreds of people at St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre for Sunday’s unveiling of the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial. They gathered around the monument, searching the 137 illuminated names for family members who lost their lives during the construction of the waterway that runs through the heart of Niagara.

And through the response to the memorial — built by Stevensville Lawn Service and Mariani Metals in Etobicoke — it was clear that although the workers died 85 to 103 years ago, they have not been forgotten, said Anne Patterson-Dodge, who travelled from Rochester, N.Y., to participate in the event.

Patterson-Dodge found the name of her great-uncle John Patterson near the top of the list — the third man to die in 1914. He was 55 years old.

“It’s just so amazing that after 103 years, he is not forgotten,” she said.

Roger Stenson said he knew very little about his great-grandfather Thomas Seaman, until he was contacted by former St. Catharines museum curator Arden Phair about 18 months ago.

“We just knew my great-grandfather died in Canada. We didn’t know where, how or why,” he said.

After learning his great-grandfather’s name would be included on the memorial, Stenson planned a trip from England to be part of the ceremony.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

For Toronto artist Dereck Revington, seeing the reactions from the descendants of the workers for whom he designed the memorial was inspiring.

“I’ve spoken to a number of family members, and they are so moved which is so rewarding,” he said.

Revington said designing the memorial was “a huge amount of work.”

“To do something simple is the hardest thing in the world,” he said.

That is particularly true, he added, when you are designing “something simple that is distilled from so many complex and often paradoxically conflicting ambitions.”

He said the primary goal of the monument is to honour the workers whose lives were cut short, but the monument also needed to reflect the extraordinary accomplishment of the construction of the canal itself.

Revington said the answer, from a design perspective, was somewhere in the middle.

“I was searching all along for the key to the memorial, and I felt it sort of lay somewhere between Niagara Falls and the canal itself, because it’s the canal that bypasses the falls.”

While sharing the enthusiasm for the monument, St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle pointed out that its unveiling was 85 years later than it ought to have been.

When the modern-day canal was first opened on Aug. 6, 1932, then federal minister of railways and canals R.J. Manion promised to build a monument to the fallen workers.

“The Government of Canada promised to honour these men. That promise was broken,” Bittle said. “That broken promise was forgotten for far too long.”

St. Catharines Standard reporter Grant LaFleche, who emceed Sunday’s unveiling, recalled meeting with Phair in 2013, who showed him research conducted into workers who were killed while working on the canal’s construction.

“What he brought me was essentially a book of the dead,” LaFleche said.

That meeting led to a series of articles published in The Standard, as well as the development of a petition bearing more than 2,000 signatures demanding that a memorial be constructed to recognize the fallen workers.

“Arden played such a pivotal role in the development of this project, we absolutely would not be here today” without him, LaFleche said.

As a result of those efforts, a task force was formed and eventually led by St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik. With fundraising efforts and two instalments of federal funding totalling $300,000, the long-awaited memorial is finally a reality.

“In the 20 years I’ve been working as a journalist, I don’t know that I can think of a single example in Niagara that has galvanized so many people in so many different ways,” LaFleche said. “People listen to the stories of the fallen. They signed petitions, they made donations, and even local artists were inspired by the lives and the stories of the fallen workers.”

He said the stories of the workers have inspired songs, at least two art exhibits, an upcoming book, and a play by Essential Collective Theatre Company. Actors from the theatre group performed a few scenes from that play for the audience, as well as a song called For the Workers: They Came to Build, written by Welland resident Penelope Blake.

ABenner@postmedia.com



Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »