Common Heritage Shared by California Sister Communities

Picture of Isola delle Femmine Sister City
Isola delle Femmine, Monterey's Sister City

Isola delle Femmine in Sicily, Pittsburg, Calif., and Monterey. What do they have in common?

Why do stories with a Pittsburg dateline appear periodically in the Monterey Peninsula Herald? Most of them are obituaries of persons with Italian names. and the name of that small resort on the northern Sicilian coast, Isola delle Femmine, crops up in them with great regularity. What are the special links between Isola and the two California cities"

The links, of course. are the families with roots deep in the rocks of Sicily, but whose branches extended first lo Pittsburg and then to Monterey the Cardinales, the Ferrantis, the Balbos, the Lucidos, the Collettos, the Russos, the Melicias and many other families whose blood ties still join the two California cities, one to the other. and both to the ancient heritage of the island at the toe of the Italian boot.

The story begins in 1849, the year of the Gold Hush, the year when soldiers o [ the Regiment of New York Volunteers were being sent from Monterey to Benicia, on the northern shore of Suisun Bay, to staff a barracks built there by the U S. government. The regiment had been sent to California originally to keep the peace after Commodore John Drake Sloat had occupied Monterey and seized a new western empire for the United States on July 7, 1846.

In "No Tears for the General," a book discussed previously in the pages. of Weekend Magazine, LL Alfred Sully of the New York Regiment tells of being sent from Monterey to Benicia, "the meanest, most uncomfortable place in California. You may ask perhaps why we are sent here. It is known that Commander Jones has lots in the place and it is well known that some officer, or officers of the Army have them also. They hope that by spending government funds here they may enrich their own pockets and maybe they will succeed in it, in spit e of all that is against them."

Col. Jonathan Drake Stevenson, commanding officer of the regiment, had other ideas, however. He had been told ln 1848 by John C. Fremont, that enigmatic, controversial figure who had explored a great section of the American West, that a place on the opposite side of the bay at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was bound to be a great commercial center in years to come.

With Dr. William C. Parker, regimental physician. Stevenson bought Rancho Los Medanos, at the site of modern Pittsburg, nearly 10,000 acres which had been a grant from the Mexican government to Jose Antone Mesa and Miguel Jose Garcia in 1838.

Col. Stevenson hired a young lieutenant who had been with him in Monterey, William Tecumseh Sherman. to survey the property and lay out a town to be known as New York of the Pacific. Sherman was to be paid $500 and was also to buy 50 town lots. Whether any cash changed hands is a moot question.

Though today the project. might call for a congressional Investigation, it seems to have caused no leak to Jack Anderson's predecessors in 1849. (Lt. Sully supplemented his meager Army pay with assignments as a surveyor of town lots in Monterey.}

Most or the buildings in the new town were erected by Joseph and W.W. Smith, who were also hired by Col. Stevenson. The Smiths, according to the-Pittsburg Historical Society, built a house for their two families and called it "New York House." It later became a family hotel. With the discovery of gold in California, "the little community became an overnight slopping place for miners on their way to the gold fields and sailing vessels enroute to inland towns with supplies."

Among the men who had sailed to San Francisco by way of the Horn and who, legally or illegally, were immigrants determined to find gold, were a number of former Italian fishermen. As laborers in New York City, they had heard of gold in California and were on their way to find it by way of New York of the Pacific.

But having arrived there and seeing the hordes of silver salmon in the rivers, they reverted to their original trade. Daily, they saw and talked to men returning empty-handed from the diggings. Why spend their last pennies to outfit themselves for a trek into the Sierra and a gamble on gold, when there was a livelihood right in front of them al a business they understood?

In the Alta California, one of the first newspapers the area, Stevenson. advertised lots for sale and had agents in San Francisco meeting the ships, urging new arrivals to settle in "the new Industrial empire.” But as the first real estate developer in Contra Costa County, he enjoyed less than complete success. Competing with Gen. Mariano Vallejo to establish a new capital for California at his New York of the Pacific. Stevenson lost out. Vallejo promised more, and the town named for him. Vallejo was selected, Vallejo in turn lost out to Benicia.

The name "New York Landing" had. become the popular designation for Stevenson's town and with that name, tile county's first post office was established. Its founder. however, decided to sell out, even though some 800 arrivals had made the future of the place seem promising. He sold to a banking firm in San Francisco and returned East to continue his Army career and play a role in the Civil War, though possibly less spectacularly than his surveyor, William Tecumseh Sherman.

In addition to Italian and Sicilian fishermen. Scandinavians, Greeks and Chinese had seen possibilities and a future livelihood at New York Landing, all from rivers. On land, though, there was a new discovery in 1885. Coal was found in the foothills of Mount Diablo, three miles south of New York Landing. '

Soon there were more coal miners than prospective gold miners in the town, many of them of Welsh extraction, A vein of coal which became. known as the Black Diamond Vein, was· opened. The Cumberland Mine·· followed. A railroad was laid from the mines to the river, the cars drawn at' first by horses.

Coal mining became one of the most important industries in Contra Costa County and four towns 'grew up around the mines: Somersville, Nortonville, New York Landing and Antioch. In 1903, the town of New York Landing changed its name and was officially incorporated as Black Diamond.

By 1882, however, Black Diamond had become a canning center for salmon, fruits and vegetables. A company named Sacramento River Canners was formed with Titus Hale, George A. Smith, Sidney Booth, J.P. Haller, W.S. Gage and F. E. Booth as directors. ln addition to canning, it built warehouses, wharves and piers, built and chartered boats, bought and sold real estate and was affiliated With the Bristol Bay Packing Co. in Alaska (later the Alaska Packers· Association.)

Frank E. Booth, son of Sidney Booth, owned 31 shares of the company by, 1894/Branching out on his own, he concentrated on the mechanical processing of fish, with a machinist named Nielson who invented what became known as the Iron Chink.

Because it cut and· cleaned the fish automatically, Nielson's invention. replaced many of the Chinese cannery workers - thus the name.

Booth built an addition to the cannery for the use of the new machines, then began looking around for other places to introduce them. Fishing, then as now, was a seasonal undertaking. with the boats heading to Alaska for salmon in the spring, returning by way of the Columbia River and the Oregon Coast in July or August, gill-netting in_ the rivers near Pittsburg in the fall, then moving to Monterey Bay for trolling· during the balance of the year and - through 'the "following February,

The date when Booth built his first cannery in Monterey is still open to debate. Most Monterey records- say 1902 or 1903. Jack Aiello, president of the Pittsburg Historical Society, believes 1905 is nearer.

At any rate, Pittsburg (still Black Diamond at the time) had the reputation of-providing the best fishermen on the Pacific Coast. It had a large Italian settlement, which began to grow in the 1850s, pins the Greeks and Scandinavians; who also tended to form· their own communities. The Chinese were known for their skill in fashioning cans by hand from sheet metal, using tin snips and a soldering irons.

In addition to canneries. on the Sacramento River and at Monterey, just west of tile present Fishermen's Wharf, Booth built a fruit and vegetable plant at Watsonville and moved his workers around as needed. In Monterey and Black Diamond, he was selling fresh frozen fish and shipping mild-cured salmon to England and Germany. his best customers. And he was constantly trying to recruit fishermen lo build up the Monterey end of the business. He used his greatest powers of persuasion on the Sicilians, who were reputed to be the hardest workers.

According to Pittsburg Historical Society records, the first Sicilian to arrive there from Isola delle Femmine was Peter Aiello, who came to New Orleans with his brother, Rosario. in 1867 or '68, bringing a shipment of lemons, then went to work in the oyster beds. But fever was raging in New Orleans, the inhabitants were dropping. like flies and the brothers Aiello made their way to San Francisco, where a Scandinavian fisherman told them he had heard of wonderful salmon fishing at Astoria, Ore.

The three traveled there, obtained an old boat and a net. asked for a second, net and fashioned deep-water gear, thus becoming "high boat" for the year on the Columbia River. The 'superintendent of the company which had loaned them the equipment gave them a S25 bonus and promised a new boat and net the following season.

Back in San Francisco, the Aiellos moved in with the Italian-Sicilian colony long enough to learn of the excellent fishing at New York Landing, So in 1870 or thereabouts. Peter took the train, found that it did not stop at the landing, threw himself off, arose unscathed and soon resumed his fishing after sending for his brother.

Striped bass. salmon, shad, sturgeon and catfish were plentiful in the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers;

Said Jack Aiello of the Historical Society, a descendant of the same family, "It was the custom of these people to live in floating shacks on the river, scows. the antecedents of the present houseboats. They did not build a home on land until they had saved. enough money to send for their families. In the case of Peter Aiello, this look four years. Then he went back to Isola delle Femmine and brought his. family here.