Haralambos Kambouris, an Immigrant's Tale | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 14, 2022 News » Cover Story

Haralambos Kambouris, an Immigrant's Tale 

How an early member of Utah's Greek community rode waves of change to the mines of Bingham Canyon and beyond.

Pin It
  • Cover photograph courtesy of the Kambouris family

"For most immigrants," wrote Nicola Yoon in The Sun Is Also a Star, "moving to the new country is an act of faith. Even if you've heard stories of safety, opportunity and prosperity, it's still a leap to remove yourself from your own language, people and country. Your own history."

Leaving one's native soil for distant shores places immigrants in a vulnerable position as they begin a lifetime of adaptations and adjustments. One never knows if they will thrive in their new home and if they will ever see their loved ones or homeland again.

It's a human saga that continues to play out for innumerable people to this day. Some make this momentous leap of faith as an act of survival, others for adventure—all for the prospect of a better life.

For one man by the name of Haralambos Kambouris, his journey from central Greece to America in the early 20th century was intended as a temporary exile from his beloved patritha—or "fatherland"—for the good of a family he left behind. He followed a winding path to his ultimate home in Utah, where he both found and helped establish an enduring community of Greek Americans, but his tale is also one of desperation and faith, of grinding labor, of love and of the sweeping streams that carry us to strange new lands.

The "ghosts of the world" had groaned, Kambouris would later write, causing "a great wave" of movement. Consequently, "the earth has been transformed, and I ride the wave to survive."

Contemporary accounts, interviews with his descendants and Kambouris' own words—preserved through an autobiographical diary and stage play that Kambouris wrote shortly before his death—offer a glimpse at the waves of immigrant stories that preceded and continue to play out all around us.

Strange Lands
Nestled about an hour northwest of Athens is the Greek city of Thebes. It was there that Haralambos, or "Harry," was born to Konstantino and Konstantina Kambouris in 1891.

As the only son in a family of five daughters, Greek custom prevailed upon Harry to help provide for the future dowries of his sisters before he himself could marry (and only then after consent and selection was given by the family at large). This was a burdensome duty given Greece's political turmoil and major crop failure.

"The boys and young men," wrote Helen Papanikolas in The Peoples of Utah, "had grown up in one of the most devastating periods of Greece's turbulent history. Struggling in the decay left by 400 years of Ottoman rule, their northern provinces still under Turkish control, many of their islands governed by the English and Italians, Greece became bankrupt in 1893. In 1897, the Greeks were defeated by the Turks and further humiliated by the Great Powers' imposing financial control over them. The education of this generation, then, was poor, often completely lacking, their opportunities stultified."

Unlike many of his peers, Kambouris was able to receive some schooling in his youth despite his family's poverty. Working various jobs around the village, he did what he could to support his loved ones, but their odds looked grim.

Harry may very well have heard the letters that were read aloud in local coffeehouses from Greeks in America who had found work on rail lines and in factories. Many of his peers were following suit and crossing the ocean for Ameriki.

An idea formed; he would spend a few years in America to support his family and then return.

In the play written near the end of his life, Kambouris provided some particularly revealing dialogue about the tension his family likely experienced over letting him embark on the journey.

"If you leave and your luck doesn't turn out as you hoped," says a father to a son, "then what will we do ... without any help during the years you are gone?"

The mother adds: "You want to go to America to that big hole in the ground that swallows the mother's children, and they never see them again. The strange lands have eaten many young men, and you think I'm going to let you go and become one of them. For sure, I will go crazy."

Shipped and Railroaded
With six of his fellows, Kambouris departed for America in August of 1912. At the rail station, as he recorded in his diary, Harry's group received gifts from local mothers to pass on to their own sons in America.

  • Dimitra K. Kambouris

Parents wept for their children, and friends for their friends. His mother embraced him and gave him a handkerchief containing a five-drachma coin and a sprig of basil, a token of Christian love.

"The train started moving," Kambouris wrote of that day. "A shout went up from the crowd—farewell! We answered with shouts and waving our handkerchiefs."

Riding to Athens, they sought passage by ship, and after some setbacks, arrived in New York by the end of September. The First Balkan War had broken out back home between the Greeks and the Turks during the voyage, and many Greek immigrants would sail back to fight in the conflict. For Kambouris, however, that wasn't an option.

"How could we ever go back?" he later wrote. "We had to go in debt to get here."

By the evening of Oct 1, the group had gone their separate ways, leaving Kambouris and a friend bound for Kansas City, Missouri. Upon their arrival, they went to a Greek coffeehouse—the usual place to obtain information and mail—and were unable to locate the person they sought for work. But they connected with a labor agent who was in need of people for a rail crew.

By the next morning, they were changing single-gauge tracks for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. Unlike the white crews—which had separate cars for their sleeping, cooking and eating quarters—Kambouris' Greek crew slept, cooked and ate in a single, cramped car.

Only a few days later, Kambouris' friend fractured his fingers on the job and was taken to a hospital. He was now alone in a foreign city.

With an uncle in Roseburg, Oregon, he wrote to his relative so as to keep someone abreast of his activities in case he was injured on the job. This was not an unreasonable action, for it was becoming a favored practice by American rail, mining and smelting industries of the day to import unskilled laborers from abroad to work for cheap with minimal training and even fewer safety precautions.

Accidents and deaths were all too common in this atmosphere, as Richard White explained in the book Railroaded. "A single miscalculation, a single piece of bad luck, a single piece of faulty equipment," he wrote, "and a world of horrors ensued."

Kambouris witnessed this world of horrors often during his early years in America. After acquiescing to his uncle's repeated demands to come to Roseburg, he decided to end his stint in Kansas City. On the very day he left, one of his fellow crew members was crushed and killed on the job by a falling railcar.

"He [the injured crew member] had a father and a brother on the same job," Kambouris wrote. "This tragic misfortune grieved and frightened me very much."

After little more than one month in America, he was once again on the move, joining his uncle and fellow Greeks on a rail crew in Roseburg and teaching himself English as he went along.

A Leaf in the Wind
At the time, rail workers bounced about from job to job with little upward mobility, sometimes being fired and other times quitting. In this, Kambouris was typical, for over the next year he went to-and-fro following every rumor of available work, whether substantive or spurious.

Traveling throughout Oregon and Washington, his spirits and health waned between 1913-1914. One job in Glendale, Oregon, was particularly fraught, as he described in his diary. Three other work crews had been brought in and quit, he wrote, "because inside the tunnel there was water, and the structure wasn't very safe. It was dangerous ... dirty and hard work. ... I fell one day because there was no light and injured my hand, but so as not to lose my day's wages, I bandaged my hand and went back to work."

This was the common experience of the laborer in America, particularly the immigrant laborer. Such persons, as Richard White observed, "had no control over their work, how it was done or when it was to be performed. ... Conditions they would never accept in the civic or public life were to be the conditions of their working lives."

"Ah!" Kambouris lamented in his diary, "I am tired, I have no more strength. I shuffle about like a leaf in the wind. And I wish for rest, and I want calm ... Neither am I able to live, neither to die."

Despite the emotional lift he found from a gradually blooming postal relationship between himself and a friend of his aunt's back in Greece named Dimitra Villiotis (1893-1973), Harry was worn down and depressed.

"For me, the lilac of life has withered," he wrote. "And at the time of death, I wish to let out a shout: A Greek in America should never set foot!"

Flashing before his view in these dark days came a few sparks of hope. It was in February of 1915 when Kambouris received a letter from a friend advising him to come to Bingham Canyon, Utah, where he would find better paying work with the mines rather than the railyards. Weary and disillusioned, Kambouris had his doubts, but he followed the suggestion.

Love in Exile
Since their initial immigration to Utah at the start of the 20th century, Utah's Greek population had already grown to 4,000 by 1910 and was primarily centered around the smelters, mines and mills of Bingham Canyon, Magna, Murray and Helper. Mostly made up of men, they married local women or arranged for picture brides to come over from Greece.

They established coffeehouses, bakeries and candy stores, roasted lamb for their feast days and went to Salt Lake City for services in the Holy Trinity Church that once stood at 439 W. 400 South.

The working conditions at the mines and smelters of Utah were no less dangerous or cruel than those of the rail-yards Kambouris had left. Illiteracy left Greek immigrants vulnerable to unfair contracts and paying unending tribute to padrones like Leonidas Skliris, who oversaw much of Greek labor in the West through his authorized positions with companies like Utah Copper (now Kennecott Corporation), Western Pacific Railroad and the coal mines of Carbon County.

When laborers grew discontent with conditions, companies turned to people like Skliris to ship in immigrant strikebreakers, pitting workers against workers, one ethnicity against another, and even one faction of an ethnicity against another.

Tracing the meandering Main Street of Bingham Canyon, Kambouris found different colonies of varying ethnicities formed into separate crews at the boardinghouses. Primarily, he laid track for steam shovels in an open pit and unloaded ore at the smelter with a pick and shovel.

As can be guessed from the conditions, he found the work on the rails and the mines to be spotty and their conditions atrocious.

Still, Kambouris's relationship with faraway Dimitra was developing into a mutual attraction, although neither had yet met the other in person. "I shall always hold a liking for you," Dimitra wrote him, "until fate brings it [the engagement] right."

Somewhat defying the conventions of his culture, Kambouris not only suggested whom he would marry but went about securing the confirmation of Dimitra's family himself. When he received word that Dimitra's family had approved the engagement, he was ecstatic.

  • Dimitra K. Kambouris & Eleni Kambouris Vagenas

"With this, my joy was endless," he wrote, "because my dreams had come true and because the greatest wish of my heart had come true." By 1919, Kambouris was able to save enough money to bring Dimitra over to Salt Lake, and they were married in the old Holy Trinity Church that year.

The onset of World War I had increased production for smelting and mining operations, but the artificial boom collapsed from decreased demand. Utah entered the 1920s with some of its favored industries in trouble and droughts hitting farmers hard.

Utah's Greek population, however, had found some stability during this period, with births on the rise and many former mine and rail workers leaving the industry to open shops or raise sheep. They drew the ire of local nativist movements like the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan and were still called "dirty Greeks" by locals, but they were flourishing as they had never done in this state before.

After doing some odd jobs in Idaho and working as a boilermaker for the Union Pacific in Tacoma, Harry and Dimitra Kambouris were able to make a trip to their beloved Greece in 1923, returning to the States in 1926. Not able to regain his Tacoma job, the Kambourises returned to Utah—this time for good.

Making another go with Utah Copper, Kambouris was almost killed in a cave-in with his crew. "After this," as Konstantinos H. Kambouris (Harry's son) said, "he decided to go into business for himself."

Shoe Polish and Ink
After opening a shoeshine and hat-cleaning service at 236 S. State in downtown Salt Lake City, Kambouris had found some economic stability, and life was becoming better. And while business could be slow, it opened up time for him to pursue more of his creative interests, such as poetry and playwriting.

Many of these works await rediscovery and translation at the Marriott Library's Special Collections at the University of Utah, still in the formal Katharevousa writing style.

As would be typical of him, Kambouris had a character state in an autobiographical work that he did not consider himself to be a creative, only writing "to pass the time." One look at the poems, plays and letters he left behind belies his self-effacing assertion.

Romantically inclined and introspective, Kambouris enjoyed a picnic in the mountains with his loved ones, a tune on the radio or a round of the Greek card game Xeri. Having lost two previous children, Harry and Dimitra adopted Konstantinos and relished their years with their son.

Serving as a secretary for the local Greek Orthodox Church and as president (or "Archon") of a Greek mutual aid/fraternity called the Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA), Kambouris retained a passionate love for his heritage as he settled into his new home. It was under the aegis of GAPA that many of his plays were performed for the local Greek community, Kambouris often directing or acting in them himself.

"They would put plays on in the church hall and ... have a party," recalled Konstantinos Kambouris, "Everybody would come ... and they had a lot of fun when they would dance and sing."

By the mid-1940s, Haralambos Kambouris had lost the lease to the shoeshine shop, but thanks to the support of a relative and the aid of friends in the Greek community, the family relocated to a 22-acre farm in Farmington, where Kambouris worked as an independent producer until his retirement in 1960. He passed away four years later from a sudden illness.

Harry and Dimitra Kambouris never became wealthy or powerful in this country, and yet, the leaps of faith made by these humble people and the love they had for others continue to have a ripple effect upon their descendants today.

Kambouris's life and journey were remarkable—and the same can be said for virtually all of the immigrants who live around and among us. That many of their stories go unrecorded leaves a gaping hole in cultural memory and overlooks the immigrant in each of our pasts, however buried in time they happen to be.

Immigrants and refugees still come to Utah's mountains from the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Pacific Islands, and while there are supportive organization—such as the Refugee & Immigrant Center Asian Association of Utah and the Good Samaritan Foundation—the needs remain great among those taking a leap of faith to come to America.

They remain vulnerable to language barriers, human trafficking, mental health concerns and identity issues that arise from being displaced from one's homeland, or as Kambouris put it, "the worry of a strange country, and the loneliness ... eating our heart and souls."

Pin It


About The Author

Wes Long

Wes Long

Wes Long's writing first appeared in City Weekly in 2021 and in 2023, he was named Listings Desk manager. Long majored in history at the University of Utah and enjoys a good book or film, an excursion into nature or the nearest historic district, or simply basking in the company of animals.

More by Wes Long

Latest in Cover Story

© 2023 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation