VELTRI, VINCENZO (James Vincent Welch), railway contractor and mining promoter; b. 19 March 1861 in Grimaldi (Italy), first child of Raffaele Veltri and Maria Potestio; d. unmarried 31 Jan. 1913 in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont.
Growing up in a Calabrian village in post-unification Italy offered little hope for the future. Crushing poverty, chronic unemployment, and injustice in southern Italy caused great waves of migrations, which began in earnest in the 1880s. To escape this wretched existence, Vincenzo Veltri, and others like him, including many from Grimaldi, left their villages early in the decade to search for opportunity in the United States.
Unskilled, with little work experience and limited education, Veltri sought employment in railway building, which attracted significant numbers of Italian navvies. By 1885 he was working in Montana Territory as a foreman for Keefer and Larson, a subcontractor for the Montana Central Railway. A year later, joined by his brother, Giovanni, he moved to Anaconda, where he remained until 1887. For the next eight years he worked in the American northwest, using Spokane, Wash., as the hub of his activities.
During the decade that Veltri worked on American railways, he acquired the expertise needed to make the transition from navvy to railway builder. He attracted the attention of Serra and Dim, a firm of Italian contractors from San Francisco who were faced with a crisis when two of their subcontractors fled with workers’ wages. Having defused this potentially dangerous situation, they put Veltri, who was recognized as a leader amongst the navvies, in charge of completing the contract. Veltri developed a reputation for being able to find work for his compatriots, primarily through his acquaintance with numerous contractors. From the outset his ability to read and write served him well, especially in the operation of the work-yards and commissarial stores he was to set up for his co-workers. His rise through the hierarchy of railway builders was hastened when he was awarded a clearing contract by Keefer and Company on the line between Butte and Jefferson City, Mont.
In 1895 Vincenzo and Giovanni Veltri began to work in Canada. Subcontracting for Guthrie, Foley, and Folette, they obtained work building an eight-mile line from Kaslo to Three Forks in the interior of British Columbia. Four months later, in partnership with Gaetano Iachetta, also a native of Grimaldi, Vincenzo obtained another 15 miles of line, from Three Forks to Sandon in the gold-mining region. During the next four years, Vincenzo, who bought out Iachetta in 1898, worked on several projects in the Kootenay region and developed an interest in mineral discovery. Everywhere they worked the Veltris and the navvies who laboured for them faced hazards; many are poignantly recounted in Giovanni’s memoirs. On one job there was an explosion in a shallow mine “in which two workers were killed – one died instantly while the other was hurled into the Columbia River making it impossible to find his remains.”
Vincenzo Veltri decided in 1899 to move his operation to Ontario. In 1901, by which time he was also known as James Vincent Welch, he obtained a small contract for the Canadian Northern Railway in the vicinity of Fort Frances. There, after he had discovered some “valuable minerals” on an island near Rainy Lake, he tangled with two of the shrewdest entrepreneurs in Canada, William Mackenzie* and Donald Mann* of the Canadian Northern, over the mining rights. In January 1904 the province’s commissioner of crown lands ruled against the Canadian Northern and granted Vincenzo a licence to mine. Shortly thereafter the New Ontario Gold Mining Company was formed with Vincenzo owning $650,000 of the $1-million capital stock, but it later went bankrupt. This foray, coupled with Veltri’s railway building business, proved too onerous. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to spend six months in a psychiatric hospital at Selkirk, Man.
Following his recovery Veltri resumed his activities and relocated his company’s headquarters in Winnipeg. In 1906 he and his brother, who had come to be called John Welch, were awarded a significant contract, to complete a 58-mile section of the National Transcontinental Railway east of the Winnipeg River. While executing this work, which began in 1907, Vincenzo discovered gold in a rock-cut near Rennie, Man., and he immediately ventured into what proved to be his second disastrous mining enterprise. During the next few years, the J. V. Welch Company was given several smaller contracts on the Transcontinental north of Kenora, Ont. One assignment proved particularly unremunerative as a result of a fire, which destroyed an entire camp, and, in the spring of 1907, the cost of bringing in some English navvies – “veritable loafers” in Giovanni’s opinion – who left after one week.
Despite these considerable set-backs, Veltri was able to pay his subcontractors and continue bidding for contracts in northwestern Ontario. With Giovanni playing a more active role, the company was successful in obtaining several new contracts, a development which prompted yet another move. The brothers set up their headquarters in Port Arthur in 1912 and, with work gangs made up largely of Italian navvies, they secured contracts from the Canadian Pacific Railway.
On 26 Jan. 1913 Vincenzo was struck with peritonitis; after five days of severe pain, he died at the Railway, Marine and General Hospital. He was given a dignified funeral service in Port Arthur by the Knights of Columbus. His corpse was sent to Winnipeg where the Knights honoured him a second time at his burial there. Giovanni Veltri took over the company and guided it through the turbulent years of World War I and beyond.
Vincenzo Veltri’s entrepreneurial spirit had allowed him to shed his peasant image and to mould into a productive organization a group of paesani and compatriots who shared some ethnic and occupational experiences. Unencumbered by familial or ancestral longings – he never married nor did he once return to his native land – he devoted his energies and talents to the company, thus becoming one of the earliest Italian immigrants to make a significant contribution to the building of railways in both the United States and Canada.
The reminiscences of the subject’s brother Giovanni have been published jointly by the Multicultural Hist. Soc. of Ontario and the Ontario Heritage Foundation as The memoirs of Giovanni Veltri, ed. J. [A.] Potestio ([Toronto], 1987).
AO, RG 80-8-0-507, no.32357. Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc. (Thunder Bay, Ont.), Welch papers. J. A. Potestio, “From navvies to contractors: the history of Vincenzo and Giovanni Veltri, founders of R. F. Welch Limited, 1885–1931” (ma thesis, Lakehead Univ., Thunder Bay, 1981).
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