An Immigrant’s Story of Tragedy and Good Fortune

Ray Marinelli at 19

Ron Marinelli is a member of our club. Michael Marnella, Ron’s brother in San Clemente, below shares their family’s fascinating journey from the Val di Non to California.

We  encourage other club members to submit their stories and photos. My ancestors originated in the villages of Casez, Banco and Sanzeno in the Val di Non. My great grandfather Raffaele, in the US Rafaeli or “Ray”, immigrated to the mining town of Nevadaville, Colorado when he was 8 years old. Orphaned at 9, he along with his two brothers survived by sleeping in a stable in exchange for cleaning up after the horses. They found themselves in a rough and tumble mining town without knowledge of the language or culture and also without parents. At age twelve he went to work in the mines. As a child he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week.

Being small of stature, they used him to crawl into the cracks and crevices to plant explosives. It was a very dangerous job, but
small Italian boys were an expendable commodity then.

Through a lot of hard work, some talent and a little bit of luck, he became foreman of the mine by age 24. Thereafter, he married the daughter of a mining engineer. Nevadaville was then known as “Bald Mountain” because it had been completely deforested for use as mine timber. Amazingly, the house where they lived is still standing. I have a photograph circa 1900 of them in their front yard watching as a 20-mule team passed by pulling heavy equipment to one of the local mines. It is perhaps 2 miles from Central City.

Willard Marinelli, Denver 1910

Both locations were very productive silver mining towns. There is a forgotten cemetery there within the abandoned ruins of the once thriving town with many Trentini names on the headstones.

My great uncle by marriage owned the saloon, and another still the water works. If someone wanted a drink of any sort, water or something stronger, it had to be
purchased from an enterprising Trentino.
The drills they used in the mines were called “widow makers” because of the
danger involved in their use and the disease they later caused. They did their work. Our
great-grandfather “Ray” died prematurely of black lung disease after spending the last six
months of his life literally coughing up blood and parts of what were once his lungs. His
shortened life’s purpose was to make the lives of his children and grandchildren better than his own. That purpose and sacrifice is one that I attempt to build on every day.

He was a quiet man who preferred never to speak of his childhood or history, traumatic as it was. In his pocket the day he died, he carried then and every day before that
three things: a pocket watch with a braided piece of his wife’s hair, a small prayer book given to him by his mother the day he left Casez, and a worn, stained letter that his father had mailed to him many years before.

Benimino Marinelli, 1910

Those items remained in a trunk, long forgotten until the death of my great aunt many years later. The prayer book and letter then came into my possession. Consumed by curiosity, I photocopied the letter and with fingers crossed I
blindly mailed it to the parish priest in Casez, the town from which the original letter had originated. I asked if the church had any record of my family. The priest read my letter to the congregation the next Sunday in Mass. Several hands went up. Through this act of great kindness and luck, I was reconnected with family long lost. As it turned out, I had cousins still living in the family home, the Castle of Casez, and familial friends throughout the small town such as the DeConcini’s just across the street. We immediately booked passage to the Val di Non. Note on the family’s last name: When my greatgrandfather arrived in New York with his family, the immigration clerk misspelled their last name
“Marnella”. Uncomfortable challenging what he saw as governmental authority, my great-grandfather lived with the error the rest of his life.
We never knew it had been anything else. It was only after rediscovering our past that the
clerical error was uncovered. Ron elected to legally change his name back to the original
spelling. I felt I had so many miles under my belt, legal documents, degrees, licenses and
children under the name Marnella, that I chose the path of least resistance and like my
great-grandfather, retained the errant spelling.