Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blacksmiths going west, part 2: The new country

This two-part article was first written (in Swedish) for a Swedish family history journal. In the first installment, we followed the lives of Gustaf Elg and Maria Sofia Bork in Sweden, leading to their decision to emigrate. Part 2 is partly based on American archives, but mainly on material and photos from the family historian Todd Lindahl, grandson of Franz Gustav "Gust" Elg..

In January 1892 emigration agent August Larsson, with offices at Götgatan 7 in Gothenburg, responds to a request from Gustaf Bork, Ferna Mill, about the cost of a one-way trip to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, United States of America.

August Larsson is the general agent for the Inman Lines Royal English & U.S. Mail Steamers, one of the major emigrant lines. At this time, emigration has developed into a major industry. The Inman Lines´ modern steamers regularly make the journey between Liverpool and New York in six days, and the shipyards are building ever more modern vessels to meet demand. In New York, Ellis Island has just opened, a giant terminal where the immigrants are examined before they are released into the new country.

August Larsson´s letter is a pre-printed standard form, supplemented by hand-written answers to the passenger's specific questions. From this we learn that the journey from Gothenburg to Fergus Falls will cost 189 kr - but out of this the boat trip Gothenburg - New York is only 75 kr. We can also see that Gustaf asked about the cost of upgrading to second class, and that his wife can bring her knitting machine without having to pay customs on arrival.

On April 1, 1892 the family board a ship in the port of Gothenburg to begin the journey. Direct service to to the U.S. is still a couple of decades into the future: The first leg of the hourney is a boat trip to Hull in England, and from there they travel by train across England to Liverpool, and the Inman Line´s pride and joy, the s / s City of New York.

The Inman Lines´ “City of New York”

The City of New York was a modern ship, built in Scotland in 1888, where she was baptized by Lady Randolph Churchill, famous socialite beauty and mother of Winston Churchill. She was the first large ocean steamer with twin propellers, which meant that she did not have to be equipped with sails as backup (breaking the propeller shaft was not uncommon on the first large steamers ..). In the autumn of 1892, she sets a speed record from the U.S. to Europe with 20.11 knots. 560 feet long, she can take 1740 passengers, of which 1000 - mainly immigrants - in steerage.

The party consists of Gustaf and Maria Sofia Elg, with daughters Emma, Johanna, Alma, Sofia, Frida and Ellen and son Frans Gustaf. The party also includes son Johan Wilhelm (John) Elg,. who had traveled back to Sweden in February to help the family on the journey, but also to fetch his bride to be, Johanna Karolina Winkler.

On the same ship is Harald Axel Söderkvist, a former seaman, born in Södertälje, but residing on Svartensgatan in Stockholm. His destination is also Fergus Falls, where he will later marry Gustaf Elg´s daughter Emma Elizabeth. It is an interesting mystery how a blacksmith's daughter from the deep forests came to know a nine years younger sailor from Södertälje?

Their destination, Fergus Falls, is an outpost in western Minnesota, on the border between a moraine landscape of forests and lakes that reminded of home, and an endless ocean of prairie grassland that stretches westward.

Barnesville, with the railroad shops in the distance

A few miles north is Barnesville, with railroad workshops where the brothers Elg found jobs. The railroad was now part of the Great Northern Railroad, the northernmost of the great trans-continental railroads, and railroad construction reached its final destination, Seattle, in 1893. By 1890, the city of Barnesville had grown to 1069 people, and had repair shops and a roundhouse. At one time, the railroad employed 75 to 150 men, largely immigrants from Germany, Sweden and Norway. By the turn of the century there were five hotels, five churches, two breweries and the City Hall and Opera was newly built. In 1907, the railroad shops were moved to Devil´s Lake, North Dakota, and the golden era of the railroad in Barnesville comes to an end.

In 1901, the Elg family moves to Brainerd, another major railroad junction along the Great Northern RR, a little further east. Two of the brothers, Aaron and John Elg, try their luck as merchants, and between 1901 and 1904 they run the "Elg Bro's Store," a food / general store in Brainerd. Their success as merchants is limited, and in 1904, they are forced to sell the store. Aaron goes back to the railroad workshops, while John is listed in the 1905 City Directory as a clerk at a competing general store, "K.W. Lagerquist" (also Swedish owned).

The Elg Brothers Store. John and Aaron in the center.

Elg Brothers letterhead

Emma Elizabeth, now Mrs. Soderquist, stays in Fergus Falls, where Harold has become foreman of the linemen at a telephone company. As true Americans, the family buys their first automobile in 1902.

Harold and Emma with son Herbert show off their new automobile

Sisters Johanna / Hannah and Alma become housekeepers for Mr Rank, a director of the Great Northern Railroad, in St. Paul. In her old age Alma becomes deaf and blind, and sister Hanna learns to communicate with her by writing on the palm.

Alma, Emma and Hanna Elg

The youngest sister, Ellen, became the first telephone operator in Fergus Falls. One day, one of the city's merchants arrived at the telephone exchange to receive a call. Ellen pointed to the phone booth, and the man, who had never seen a phone before leaned against the door and called out "hello?" at the door handle. In 1912 Ellen travels with her family in the automobiles to Minneapolis. There are no road signs on the small dirt roads, and people along the road do not know where they lead, because you take the train if you need to travel. Whenever they encounter a horse cart, they must run off the road and shut the engine. The trip takes four days, with several flat tires. Today, the route takes less than three hours, on 178 miles of highway.

Aaron and Adolph in the D&IR shop

Three of the brothers, Adolph, Aaron and Gust (Franz Gustaf) eventually move to Two Harbors, a small town on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Here they are employed in the workshops of the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad, a road pulling heavy iron ore trains to the docks in Two Harbors. And this is where – a century later - I meet Gustaf´s grandchildren, and take part of their history. Two Harbors also had a radical labor movement with several Swedish agitators.


Gust (top right) on the running board of D&IR #70


The Elg family, gathered in Brainerd, October 1906

Gustaf Elg dies in 1909 in Brainerd, 75 years old. His wife Maria Sofia survives him by almost 20 years. The oldest daughter Emma Soderquist dies in 1915, Harold moves further west to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and remarries, but after his second wife passes away, he is reunited with his former brothers-in-law-in Two Harbors. At 70, Aaron Elg makes a trip to Sweden. He was traveling alone and we do not know the purpose of his journey. He returns to New York on Aug. 26, 1931 on the Swedish American Line´s "Kungsholm".

Gustaf Elg, with Emma, Harold and Herbert. Notice the picture on the wall behind Gustaf!


The picture enlarged: A painting based on the photo of Liljendal which Gustaf and Maria Sofia brought to Minnesota (see part 1). Liljendal is the place where Gustaf became a blacksmith, and where Gustaf and Maria Sofia met and married.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Blacksmiths going west, part 1: Life in Sweden

This two-part article was first written (in Swedish) for a Swedish family history journal. In this first installment, we will follow the lives of Gustaf Elg and Maria Sofia Bork in Sweden, leading to their decision to emigrate.


The 19th century´s industrial revolution was made possible by new and more efficient methods of producing iron and steel, and demand for these products skyrocketed. But the new technology also came to mean the end of the wood-fired furnaces and forges that for 200 years had provided the world with iron from Sweden.

The Industrial Revolution also laid the foundation for the mass emigration to the United States, and many blacksmiths chose to emigrate, rather than to seek work in the modern industrial mills.

This was also the case for my Elg family, with roots in Säfsnäs / Gravendal (and going back to Finnish slash and burn farmers who first settled in the area around 1600). At least 20 Elgs emigrated to the United States, and I have contact with about 40 descendants, from Maine to Seattle and Los Angeles

In the early 1800s, a number of blacksmiths from our Elg family moved a few miles west, to Liljendal in Rämmen parish. This is also where most emigrants have roots. In this story, we will follow one of these emigrant blacksmith families. The family's life in Sweden is traced from parish records and other historical sources. The family's fortunes in America is partly based on American archives, but mainly on material from the family historian Todd Lindahl, grandson of Franz Gustav "Gust" Elg.

Liljendal abt 1860.
Gustaf and Maria Sofia brought this photo to Minnesota.
Todd Lindahl collection

Gustaf Elg, blacksmith

Gustaf Elg was born in 1834 in Gravendal, the youngest son of my great-great-grandfather Lars Elg (1789-1853) and Lisa Gråberg (1792-1873). Lars Elg was a master blacksmith, and introduced what was known as the German method of forging at Gravendal. An older sister of Gustaf, Christina Elg (1820-1902) also came to emigrate, but that's a different (and interesting) story.

At the age of fifteen, Gustaf moves to Liljendal in 1849, where he begins to learn the blacksmith profession as a helper to his older brother, Johan Elg (1817-1896). In 1852 Gustaf moves again, this time to Gustavsström, Gåsborn, to continue his training with another brother, master hammersmith Peter Elg (1814-1890).

Gustaf Elg and Maria Sofia Bork
Todd Lindahl collection

Two years later, Gustav moves back to Rämmen, to work as an assistant to master blacksmith Jan Bork at Heden, an annex to the Liljendal mill. In 1856, at age 22, his apprenticeship is over, and Gustaf marries Maria Sofia Bork (b. 1838 in Liljendal). Maria Sofia is the daughter of Jan Bork's deceased brother Petter Bork (1812-1851) and Lisa Stålberg. (While there were a number of Elg-smiths in Rämmen parish the Bork family was even more numerous, and I have found several marriages between the two families).

Gustav is now an assistant master, the master blacksmith´s number two man, and leads the crew when the master is not in place. At least in the early years, the couple lives with Maria Sofia's family, where her mother has remarried the 15 years younger assistant master Olof Jonsson Roth. Marrying a blacksmith's widow, and taking responsibility for supporting the family, was not an unusual way for a blacksmith apprentice to obtain the resources needed to advance to assistant master and master blacksmith.

In 1864, after fifteen years of training, Gustaf could finally call himself a master blacksmith. In Liljendal Maria Sofia also gave birth to six of the couple's total of 14 children: Emma Elizabeth (b.1857), Carl Gustaf (b. 1859), Aaron (b. 1860), Johanna (b. 1862), Francis Edward (b. 1865), and John William (b. 1866). Francis Edward died only 17 months old.

Rönneshytta, Lerbäck

In 1867, after three years as a master blacksmith, Gustaf moves with his growing family to Rönneshytta in Lerbäck parish in Närke. The move also includes helper Erik Johan Elg, a son of Gustaf´s brother Johan who once trained Gustaf in Liljendal. Rönneshytta delivers pig iron to the nearby Skyllberg mill where the iron is processed in a newly built rolling mill.

At the Skyllberg mill, Maria Sofia's brother Olaus Bork is master mechanic since two years, and is responsible for an ambitious expansion program. He will eventually build the narrow gauge railroad connecting Skyllberg to the outside world, and is a master mechanic for 32 years (see ).

In Rönneshytta three children are born, Adolf Fredrik (1868), Alma Justina (1870) and Lambert (1875).

Emigration begins

In 1876 it is time for the family to move again, this time to Fagersta Mill, Västanfors. The oungest son, Lambert, dies shortly afterwards, just 17 months old. Three years later, the first step on the way to America is taken, as the eldest son Carl Gustaf Elg emigrates, 20 years old, in July 1879. Two years later, his brother Aaron moves to Eskilstuna as an apprentice at Bolinder Munktell, but soon he follows his brother's trail, and emigrates to the U.S. in August, 1882. Both brothers find work in railroad workshops in Minnesota.

In 1884 daughter Emma Elizabeth leaves the nest. She travels to Gävle to become kitchen maid to Colonel Carl Bror Munck. Munck is not only commander of the Helsinglands Regiment, he also belongs to King Oscar II's staff, and his wife is lady in waiting to Queen Victoria.

Aaron is visits Sweden in 1885, presumably to discuss further emigration plans. Next year brothers Johan Wilhelm and Adolf Fredrik also emigrate.

Two of Olaus Bork's sons, Carl Gustaf and Leonard Bork, also emigrate to Minnesota, in April 1887. I have written about Carl Gustaf´s tragic death in a previous article ( ) Leonard returns to Sweden and Skyllberg after his brother's death. Adolf stays a year in Montana before moving back to Minnesota. Possibly he brought with him the remains of Carl Gustaf Bork, as he is buried in Barnesville, Minnesota.

Hannah and Adolph Elg, at Carl Gustaf Bork´s grave in Barnesville, 1939
Todd Lindahl Collection

The family is not yet ready for the big leap. While Johan Wilhelm and Adolf Fredrik emigrate to Minnesota Gustaf Elg moves his family one last time in 1886, now to Ferna Mill, Gunnilsbo, Västmanland. While at Ferna a decision is reached, and sometime 1891 - 1892 Gustaf writes to an emigration agent to inquire about the cost of moving the family to Minnesota.

The blacksmith shop at Ferna, abt 1880


In a following article, we will follow the family across the Atlantic, and their life in the new country.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A railroad builder in the family

This article was originally written for a Swedish railroad history publication.

Sometimes my interests in railroad history and genealogy coincide. When Gustaf Elg and Maria Sofia Bork take their family to Minnesota, Maria leaves behind a brother, Olaus Bork, who turns out to be a very interesting person: He played an important role both in developing an iron works at Skyllberg, and in construction of a narrow gauge railroad, which linked Skyllberg to the outside world.

Olaus was born into the blacksmith profession at Liljendal, but he did not have an easy start in life. Only four out of nine children reach adulthood: Olaus (b 1836), Maria Sophia (b 1838), Christina (b. 1842) and Per Gustaf (b. 1844). Their father dies of smallpox, only 39 years old. When Olaus moves to Tyfors in 1852, to start his apprenticeship for the blacksmith profession, the parish record decribes him as “able and willing, but undernourished”. Olaus serves as an apprentice blacksmith at several different mills, marries Eva Helena Österberg and starts a family, and in 1863 he is hired as a blacksmith at Rönneshytta, in the province of Närke.

A year later, he is asked to take up a position at the nearby Skyllberg Works (a smelter at Rönneshytta produced pig iron which was then processed in rolling mills at Skyllberg). A history of the Skyllberg works notes that “Bork, who was likeable man, rose through the ranks to become master mechanic and master builder at Skyllberg. He was a gifted practical man, with no formal training, who nevertheless carried out several more or less (sic!) successful engineering projects.”

The mill area in the 1880´s. In the foreground, the new rolling mill is being constructed. “Kårberg” poses with proud driver, and in the background Olaus Bork and family keep a watchful eye. Todd Lindahl collection.

In an interview with at local newspaper, on his 80th birthday in 1917, Olaus Bork recalls how the engineering workshop and foundry at Skyllberg were constructed under his leadership. After spying at several other mills, he designed several of the machines himself, or they bought one machine and made copies as needed. At Kårberg, Olaus built a nail factory, including wire and galvanizing mills. Many of the machines were made at Skyllberg, under Bork´s guidance.

The nail factory at Kårberg. Olaus Bork at the Engine.

In 1873, a standard gauge railroad arrived, passing only two miles from Skyllberg. Olaus was tasked with building a connecting narrow gauge railroad and reload station at Lerbäck. He also oversaw the construction of a number of railroad cars at Skyllberg. Initially the trains were pulled by oxen or horses. In 1881, a four-wheel steam locomotive was ordered, named “Kårberg”. Build by Nydquist & Holm (Sweden´s premiere steam loco builders) it became Sweden´s smallest steam loco used in common carrier traffic on narrow gauge, with a weight of only 5 ½ tons, on 26” drivers.

“Kårberg”, mfg. photo, 1881, Nydquist &Holm  # 150
Swedish Railroad Museum

In 1883, work was begun to extend the railroad nine miles in the other direction, from Skyllberg to Askersund. This gave Skyllberg access to a deep water port on Sweden´s largest lake, and gave the town a rail connection to the standard gauge network. The original contractor (no doubt the lowest bidder..) lacked all experience of railroad construction, and abandoned the project before it was completed. Again, Bork was called to the rescue, and completed construction, which included almost all trackwork, one bridge and another 50 flatcars built at Skyllberg. In the 1917 interview, Bork tells how he came close to disappearing with a construction train, when they came to a spot where the whole roadbed had disappeared. The lost earth masses were later discovered in a nearby lake.

The Bork home overlooked the mill area.
Today, the Skyllberg head office is located in the same spot.
Todd Lindahl collection.

The railroad company was a joint project between the town of Askersund and the Skyllberg Works, but the project was not without friction. No Skyllberg representative participated in the opening ceremony. In 1888, the railroad company decided to lease the railroad to Skyllberg, as the prospects for profit remained dim. After this, Skyllberg studiously avoided naming any of its locomotives after the town of Askersund.

When the railroad was opened in December 1884, Oalus Bork was engineer on the inaugural train. Despite its small size, Kårberg could handle for almost 50 years, until this traffic ceased in 1931 (maximum speed was 12 mph..).  In the early years, Olaus Bork personally drove most scheduled trains. On one occasion, he attempted to run the train from the highest point on the line to either end without using any steam. He succeeded, but in his own judgement it was “a foolish and risky stunt, as I had to maintain too high speed through some curves”.

The Skyllberg owners expanded the rail net in several stages for the mill´s own needs. In 1883, two miles were built from Skyllberg to the new nail factory at Kårberg, and in the early 20th century, about 10 miles of logging and peat harvest track was extended east from Lerbäck. This meant that the narrow gauge had to cross the Swedish State Railway´s mainline at grade. A spur was also laid from Lerbäck to a sawmill at Rönneshytta.

 Olaus´family were not spared tragedy either. Two of Olaus´sons emigrate to Minnesota, to join their aunt Maria Sofia, uncle Gustaf Elg and a number of cousins who worked for the railroads. In April 1889, Karl Gustaf Bork and his cousin Adolph Elg were sent to Glasgow, Montana to work in a railroad machine shop being built there. When Adolph and Karl arrived in the new town, they found that were no rooms available for the night. That night they slept under a wagon parked in the street. Sometime during the night it began to rain hard and both men became soaked. Kurt came down with pneumonia and died there in Glasgow, 25 years old. The two youngest children died Before age ten.

Olaus Bork with his eldest son, Karl Gustaf Bork
Olaus Bork is a superintendent at the Skyllberg Works for 33 years. From his house he can keep a constant watch over the mill area. He leaves his post in 1897, age 61, dies in 1926 and is buried in Lerbäck.


The Skyllberg Works are still in business. It is a family owned company and has been in the same family since Olaus Bork´s time. All production is now located at Kårberg, but the head office stands on the same spot where Olaus´home was located, and some of the old mill buildings are still there.

The mill area in November 2012. The closest building is the workshop and foundry built by Bork.
In the distance we see the engine house, and the carpentry/pattern shop.
Photo Lennart Elg
I have posted more photos from the mill area in 2012  at .



Monday, April 29, 2013

Keeping up with world affairs

A self-portrait of my father, Carl Erik Elg, from 1941. I guessed that he was reading Life Magazine, and by comparing this image to the online version of Life at Google Books, I was able to determine that this is indeed their May 19, 1941 issue. The article on the right hand page is about the technology of incendiary bombs, published under the “Science” heading.
There are a number of things which are remarkable about this picture. Having a color slide from 1941 is interesting in itself. But this photo is also taken in Sweden, during some of the darkest days of the second world war. In May 1941, Britain stood alone in fighting the Nazi regime. The European continent was under German occupation. It is still half a year until Pearl Harbor, and Russia is still allied to Germany through the Molotov – Ribbentrop agreement. Sweden is neutral, but to the west and south Norway and Denmark have been occupied by the Germans for more than a year, and to our east, the Finns are trying to recover from the 1939-1940 “winter war” against Russia. International trade is very limited by the war.
My father was very interested in international affairs, and a subscriber to Life until it ceased publishing. But how did Life magazine make its way to Sweden at this time? One story I seem to recall is that printing plates were flown to Sweden and the magazine printed locally, as part of the “information war” for hearts and minds, but this is half a year before the US joined the war? And in that case, would they have bothered making full color prints of advertising directed to the American market (they did later print a special version which was distributed to US forces overseas, but this did not include advertising)?

Monday, January 21, 2013

A royal connection

In an early letter, Todd Lindahl recalled a story about one of Gustaf Elg´s daughters cooking for royalty back in Sweden. I took this with a grain of salt at the time, but it appears there was some substance to this family tradition!

Gustaf and Maria Sofia´s first child was Emma Elisabeth Elg, born in Liljendal in 1857. I have now discovered a parish record which shows that in 1884, Emma Elisabeth moves to Gefle, an old merchant town on the Baltic coast. She is employed as a servant in the household of colonel Carl Bror Munck. Munck is commander the Helsingland infantry regiment, but he is also a member of the staff of King Oscar II, and his wife is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Victoria. Their royal duties were performed on a rotating basis, so he was able to fill his post as commander at the same time (until 1885, a regiment only trained for 42 days a year). It is not unlikely that he would have acted as host if a member of the royal family visited the city.

As you can see from the photo, Munck was quite an impressive figure in his dress uniform. The medals are for services to the king, Sweden has not been at war since 1814.

Emma emigrated to Minnesota with the rest of her family in 1892, where she married Harold Soderquist, another Swede. Emma passed away in 1915, in Fergus Falls.

Emma and Harold, with son Herbert, in 1902.
This must have been one of the first automobiles in Fergus Falls!