Saturday, April 20, 2013

Britta's Brave Passage

My mother's paternal grandmother, Britta Mathilda Goransdotter Erickson (19 Apr 1887 - 1 Feb 1958), immigrated from Sweden to Canada in 1912.  Britta made this momentous trip with her husband, Johan (28 Apr 1882 - 22 Oct 1959), and her two sons, Martin Rudolph (27 Mar 1909 - 26 Jun 1996) and Karl Johan Andre (14 April 1912 - 23 Sep 1971).  The family brought with them a photo album with pictures of friends and family, like most immigrants coming to the New World at this time they would have little expectation of ever seeing their family or homeland again.

When I was growing up there were two family myths that we great grandchildren heard about Britta's immigration:
  1. that the family missed the Titanic during their trip over, and instead booked passage across on some sort of cattle ship; and,
  2. as the family travelled inland from the port of Montreal to rural Saskatchewan, where they would homestead, Britta was seriously injured in a fall from a train near Kenora, ON.
With a couple of years of family history research under my belt I felt ready to take on these myths.  <wink>

Myth No. 1 - Britta and her family missing the Titanic.  

Well, at first glance, this is a possibility: the family did immigrate in 1912, and the Titanic sank in 1912.  But with just a small scratch on the surface this myth starts to fall apart. Let's take a look at the timeline from just a few pieces of evidence:  
  • April 10, 1912 - The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England.
  • April 14, 1912 - The Titanic hits an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic at 11:40 pm, and sinks 2 hours and 40 minutes later.
  • April 14, 1912 - As seen on his birth records, great uncle Karl was born in Vasternorrland, Sweden.  It would have been hard to catch the boat when the family wasn't even in the same country. 
  • August 19, 1912 - The family arrived in Montreal, Canada, aboard the Allan shipping lines passenger ship Pretorian.  It is possible that 3rd class passengers like Britta and Johan may have described the accommodations as being like a cattle boat.  However, the Pretorian was a passenger ship made to carry both 2nd and 3rd class passengers.   Also of note on this record, there is a C.P.R. stamp on the passenger manifest for this family, indicating that they will be travelling inland via the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Perhaps the family intended on taking the Titanic across to the new world, but with a baby expected at the same time, those plans would likely have changed.  I wouldn't really call that "missing the boat."  In the end, there is no evidence to support Myth No. 1.  My great grandparents did not miss the Titanic.  It was a great myth, but that's all it was.

Myth No. 2 - Great grandma Britta fell from a train - as the family journeyed across Canada to take up their homestead in Saskatchewan. 

Britta's granddaughter and my mother, Aina, has expanded on the story surrounding the accident.  Britta had walked back to the dining car to warm up a bottle of milk for her 4 month old baby, Karl.  As Britta was moving between cars, the gates protecting passengers had been left open at one connection.  Somehow, Britta fell off the train as it travelled through northern Ontario.  Britta's husband, Johan, was left with a baby needing to be fed, and a three year old who would likely start missing his mom.  

Imagine travelling across this vast country by train, waiting for your wife to come back with a warmed-up baby bottle, yet she never returns.  How long do you wait before you start to worry, and how long after that before you go searching?  Now, throw in the complication that you don't speak English, and would have trouble voicing these concerns to the train conductor.  

Well, this one might be a bit more difficult to prove.  What records will there be to prove someone fell off a train over 100 years ago.  As mentioned above, I talked with my mom, and she did say that after her fall Britta spent a lot of time in the hospital, and she was always trouble by the injuries sustained in her fall. Also, Grandpa Rudolph used to tell us grandchildren about how he learned to hunt and trap when he first arrived in Canada because his dad was busy breaking land to satisfy the terms of the homestead, and his mom was unable to help cook.  Four or five year old Rudolph was responsible for getting dinner on the table.  This sounded less like a myth, and more like child labor.  I don't know how to prove that my grandpa had to hunt and trap when he was four years old, but I do know that he did hunt and trap all through his youth and adult life.

Finally, my mom mentioned that, before Britta's sons were married, both of Britta's daughters-in-law worked for her, helping around the house as she was unable to do much of the more physical work as a result of the injuries she sustained.  Perhaps some good came out of this accident - as my grandfather met my grandmother when she came to work for his mom.  What a great matchmaking system!

Then I thought to myself, if a woman fell off a train 100 years ago, that had to be a news story.  So I searched for any news reports in the days following the family's arrival in Montreal, on August 19, 1912.  And I think I found just what I was looking for, a local item in the Kenora Miner and News from Kenora, Ontario, published on Saturday, August 24, 1912.  

On Wednesday night when the 3rd
section of No. 1 was passing Dinor-
wic a lady fell off the train but was
not missed by anyone.  She was pick-
ed up by a freight crew who were in
the siding at the time and was bro-
ught here on No. 5 Thursday morn-
ing.  It is thought that she was
standing on the steps of the coach
when it struck the curve and was
shaken off.  She is at present in the
Royal Jubilee Hospital and is pro-
gressing nicely.

If you have ever travelled by train you will know that when the train does take a corner, if you are walking, you can be jostled about.  How unlucky to be passing between cars just at the time the train rounded a bend, and just as unlucky to have the gate left open so that you are bounced from the train while moving.  It is possible the train has slowed down somewhat before entering the curve, and passing the siding at Dinorwic, which quite possibly saved Britta's life.

To help envision where this accident happened, below is a shot of the region from Google Maps showing point A, this being the location of the Dinorwic siding (right) where the accident occurred, and the city of Kenora, ON (left), where the Royal Jubilee Hospital was located.

I did review two more months of the Kenora Miner and News to see if there was a follow-up article about the accident, one that might name the victim, but the search was unsuccessful.

My mother requested any applicable records about Britta's hospitalization from the former Kenora Royal Jubilee Hospital, unfortunately they advised that the hospital no longer has records dating from that time period.  I do plan on following up with the local hospital in Saskatchewan, but that hasn't happened, yet, as I just received the results from Kenora.  The woman in the above news report is not named, but it does describe a woman falling from the train on Wednesday, August 21st, which is two days after Britta and her family arrived at the port of Montreal.  This isn't absolute proof, but it is quite likely that the woman mentioned in the article is Britta.

What interests me are a couple of comments in the news story.  First, that the person "was not missed."  According to the family story, I believe that Britta was sorely missed, but it may have taken a long time for Johan to get the courage to communicate this to the authorities on the train.  Second, that the woman was "progressing nicely."  Britta suffered from the after-effects of the accident for the rest of her life, however, she did survive the accident.  If you fell from a moving train in 1912, as long as you survived, you would likely be considered as progressing nicely.

Poor Britta, she came to Canada with her family to start a new life, yet, only two days after immigrating to this new country she accidentally fell off the train that was to take her to her new home.   She must have been terrified: she was in a strange country where everyone speaks a different language, and now must deal with her injuries, the medical treatment, and get in contact with her husband and children.  I don't think I can even imagine what Britta went through, but she did finally make it to her homestead, and together, she and her family survived.

What a brave woman, to take on all of these challenges, and not only survive, but thrive, with a beautiful home, 2 children and 6 grandchildren

Copyright 2013 Denise G Baker, All Rights Reserved
     S/S Pretorian; Norway Heritage. - accessed 17 Apr 2013.
     Record for Britta Mathilda Eriksson, "Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935," [database on-line].  Original microfilm roll T4790, image 15, page 6. Original data: Passenger Lists, 1865–1935. Microfilm Publications T-479 to T-520, T-4689 to T-4874, T-14700 to T-14939, C-4511 to C-4542. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. RG 76-C. Department of Employment and Immigration fonds. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON.  Accessed 18 Apr 2013. ($)
     Birth record for Karl Johan Andre Eriksson, image 5, 1912, for Torp, Vasternorrlan, Sweden, Indexed Birth Records, 1880-1920, [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011. Swedish Church Records Archive; Johanneshov, Sweden; Sweden, Indexed Birth Records, 1880-1920; GID Number: 2089.73.35900; Roll/Fiche Number: CO0656; Volume: SCB; Record Type: Födde (Births); Year Range: 1898 - 1920.  ($)
     Titanic:: the unsinkable ship; Encyclopaedia Brittanica. - accessed 17 Apr 2013.
     Personal notes, taken from interview with Aina Baker on January 2, 2013.   Notes and interview in possession of this blogger.
     "Local Items," Kenora Miner and News. Vol. XVI, Saturday, August 24, 1912, Miner Publishing Company.  Digitized images, online database, Digital Archives, Kenora Public Library, Kenora, ON; - accessed 18 Apr 2013.
     Map of the region of Dinorwic, ON to Kenora, ON courtesy Google Maps; - accessed 18 Apr 2013.

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