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.

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