The early 1900s were a turbulent time of change for Tooele County. Discoveries of gold and other valuable metals in the surrounding mountains brought conflicts the small agrarian community had never previously encountered, and cultures clashed as immigrants came to work for the local mines and railroads.
Tooele County became an especially popular location for Italian immigrants, and thriving Italian communities sprung up first in Ophir and later in Mercur and Tooele City itself.
Not every Italian family worked in industry. In Tooele, according to “The Peoples of Utah” by Philip F. Notarianni, several immigrant families founded goat farms and manufactured goat cheese, which they could sell at a decent price in Salt Lake City.
While the goat ranchers managed to make ends meet, the immigrants performing unskilled labor for the railroads or in the mines often suffered dismal living conditions. Homes in mine towns such as Mercur were rented by the room. One family, according to Notarianni, rented an abandoned box car partitioned by a curtain. When the company inspectors came to collect rent, the curtain was torn down, lest the price double. Those who couldn’t afford a home camped out in tents on the outskirts of town in what became known as “rag towns,” and occasionally a luckier family would be able to purchase land and build their own home.
“You built your own shack, and the copper company let you build your shack there,” one immigrant recalled in “The Peoples of Utah. “No bathrooms, of course … it was usually a single-boarded shack, you know. Some of them had a sheet-iron roof on them, and then covered with tarpaper. And single board. That’s pretty rough, you know, in those winters.”
But the bitter life of Italian immigrants also had a sweet side. Though they left their homeland, the immigrants brought with them their love of music, and Tooele had several Italian bands and orchestras that played at community events.
Many Italian immigrants also brought their beliefs to America, and they played a key role in establishing the Catholic Church in Tooele. Priests had visited immigrant populations in Stockton, Ophir and Mercur prior to 1907, when St. Marguerite’s was founded, but for many years services were not available to Catholics living in the county. The first public service, held in 1904, was so enjoyed by the community that a petition to have Catholic services at least once a month in Tooele City was drawn up and shortly granted, and by 1907 land was secured and construction had begun on Tooele’s first Catholic Church, according to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers’ “History of Tooele County.”
St. Marguerite’s was formally dedicated on November 20, 1910, by Bishop Scanlan, and it remains an integral part of the city’s heritage today.