5. Little Italy, Retsof NY
Around 1890 a place called Little Italy came into being near Griegsville, New York. Most of the residents of Little Italy were immigrants who came to work in the nearby salt mine, and many were Italian. These individuals constructed new lives above and below ground. The particular geology of the land around Retsof contributed salt and landscape—the motivation and backdrop for the town. The company provided the housing structures and the residents of the community executed the remainder of the construction of Little Italy.
Deep in the mine, men derived sustenance for their families from the incessant lifting of salt from cavern floor to mule-drawn-cart. Above the ground grapes were grown to make wine, and the first Catholic Church in the area was built. Gardens comprised of plants that were compatible with western New York’s growing conditions fed families. Residents of Little Italy navigated xenophobia from those who lived in Retsof. The farmland and deciduous forest became a playground for children and a home for families. This amalgam of geography, heritage, and occupation defined “Little Italy,” a distinct place.
In the late 1800’s the need for salt in Western New York was met primarily by brine springs in the Syracuse area. In 1882, Carroll Cocher, an amateur geologist from Greigsville predicted that there were deposits of rock salt beneath the surface of the earth in Livingston County. With the support of several investors from New York City, Cocher dug test wells and discovered that there was indeed a significant seam of salt 1000 feet below the surface. William Foster, one of the investors who financed Cocher’s research, came to be president of the salt mine. From his office in the geography of cement and grading in New York City, Foster named his mining company and the town that sprung up near it. He called them Retsof, the reverse spelling of his name. Foster and the corporate entity of Retsof Mining Company applied a similar remote authority to the construction of a village for workers. The company housing was set off from the central town of Retsof, which was mostly inhabited by American-born workers and managers at the mine. “Little Italy,” as the company housing came to be known, was comprised of 35 similar homes and one boarding house.
Today, 100 years later, what remains of Little Italy is in the midst of being overtaken by forest. Red bricks from foundations sit beneath deep grass and young trees loom over land once cleared for inhabitation. The Little Italy from photographs before 1923 is impossible to discern in this place that is approaching wilderness. The company moved employees out of Little Italy and sold the property in 1923. The character of Little Italy was dispersed with those who had lived there—to the village of Retsof, New York City, or back to Italy. The geology of the area though, has been irrevocably changed by the activity of the miners of Little Italy.
In 1994, 77 years after Retsof Salt Company closed Little Italy, parts of the mine collapsed. The event began with a 500-by-500- foot section of shale falling through a cavern. That fall caused other parts of the mine to cave in. By 1994 the mine had grown to roughly the size of Manhattan, so the impact of this disaster was vast. As the land shifted, methane and hydrogen sulfide gasses were released. The collapse resulted in flooding of the mine, which caused subsistence of ground-water levels and threatened the integrity of the aquifer used to supply water for the area. In 2006 Azko Nobel, the company that owned the mine at the time of the collapse, opened a desalination plant in an attempt to prevent further contamination of the aquifer. Though Little Italy is all but gone to all except those who seek it out, the impact of the Retsof Salt Mine collapse are inescapable. The geography of Little Italy above ground seems to be systematically erasing signs of its existence. Still, the collapse carries echoes of those families that left Italy for the promise of bountiful salt, like treasure, 1,000 feet beneath the surface.