Wednesday, April 03, 2013

635 Souls Missing: A Story of the SS Norge Disaster, Part II

Words cannot describe the anxiety that stirs within a mother and father anxiously awaiting the safe passage of a young daughter from halfway across the world.  It is true now, and was probably even more so in times past, when long-distance travel often meant potentially hazardous sea voyages across thousands of miles of unpredictable ocean.

One can only imagine what new American immigrants Jørgen and Anne Humberstad experienced when, during the summer of 1904, they were notified that their daughter, Josefine Karoline, never made it to the shores of America from Norway, as planned.  Not only that, but her body was one of over 600 lost at sea in the most catastrophic sea disaster to date.  Even more tragic was that it had been an entirely preventable occurrence, if only the captain had adhered to the stringent guidelines of his maritime training.

Jørgen Simon Humberstad (April 4, 1845-October 16, 1916) and his wife, Anne Martinusdatter (July 17, 1854-April 23, 1941) left their home parish of Davik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway in 1903, and settled on a farm in Buzzle, Betrami County, Minnesota. [1]  Accompanying them on their voyage were their daughter, Oline, and son, Karl (Carl) Rafinus Humberstad.  Their older daughter, Josefine Karoline, remained in Norway with family friends or relatives until the following year, in order to complete her confirmation within the Lutheran Church.  For Norwegian Lutherans, confirmation as a sign of becoming an adult in the eyes of the church was extremely important.  So, it is not surprising that the timing of Josefine's confirmation encouraged her parents to agree to postpone her emigration until the following year. [2]

Map showing the municipality of Davik, Norway with the 1905 boundaries.  Sogn og Fjordane Fylke, 1920.

It appears that young Josefine did not depart Norway on her own.  Another family residing in Davik, Sogn og Fjordane registered for passage on the SS Norge the same day as Josefine (June 18, 1904).   Mikkel Pedersen mmerstøl (58), his wife, Anna Mikkelsdatter mmerstøl (61), and their 15-year-old daughter, Rasmine Andrea Mikkelsdatter, were headed for Lead, South Dakota.  The Tømmerstøl 's eldest daughter, Anne Martine, also traveled with the family, but she was bound for Dagen, North Dakota. [3]  No doubt, the Tømmerstøls planned to see Josefine Humberstad safely to her family in Buzzle, Minnesota before proceeding to South Dakota.  In a sad turn of events, the entire Tømmerstøl family perished along with Josefine Humberstad during the wreck of the SS Norge.  On the passenger list each person's destiny is listed as omkom, or lost.

What happened during the voyage of the SS Norge in June 1904 that caused so many people to perish?  The first news of the disaster appeared in major newspapers on July 4, about six days after the sinking.  Here is what the New York Times published on its front page on July 5, 1904:

AWFUL DEATH PANIC AS THE NORGE SANK
Men, Women, and Children Fought for Life.
ASLEEP WHEN SHE STRUCK
Captain Went Down with Ship But Came Up and Was Saved.
Probably 646 Drowned
Off 774 Persons on Board Only 128 Are Known to Have
Been Rescued-Tales of the Survivors


GRIMSBY, England, July 4.-A lone pile of granite [Rockall], rising sheer out of the Atlantic 200 miles from the Scottish mainland, is now a monument to almost 650 dead. Bodies wash against the rocks or lied in the ocean bed at its base. Near by, completely hidden in the water, is the Scandinavian-American liner Norge, which was carrying nearly 800 Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns to join relatives or friends in America. Of these only 128 were saved, so far as is known...


As time progressed, the numbers of those who survived versus those lost would change until a final count had been determined.  What was fairly clear to all from the beginning was the turn of events.  On the morning on June 28, 1904, the SS Norge was navigating over St. Helen's Reef near Rockall, a 20-meter high, uninhabited, remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic Ocean, when it ran aground on Hasselwood Rock.  The area near Rockall, about 300 miles west of the Scottish coast, was a well-known hazard to mariners. The ship had been taken off course willfully by its captain.  His decision had far reaching consequences, which he would pay little price for, compared to his passengers.  Ships Nostalgia website contains an explanation for the variation in the ship's course, which resulted in the tragedy: 

The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times, as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.


The following is an excerpt of an abstract regarding an article published on February 7, 2004 in London's Daily Times: [4]

As the [SS Norge] steamed out into the Atlantic, one of the passengers, student Herman Lauritsen had no parental responsibilities and was enjoying the new experience. He marvelled at the expanse of sky and sea during the endless midsummer daylight. The morning of June 28 was calm, and as the morning sea mist drifted round the 3,000-ton vessel, he slept soundly. A newspaper report the following week gave his account of what happened next: 'I awoke suddenly when the ship ran aground and I ran onto the deck where there was an indescribable fear and commotion. A struggle for life was ravaging the ship like a storm and a voice from the bottom of the ship cried "Throw my children up on deck." The sight on the top deck was awful. People stood in front of the pile of life vests but they were not able to attach any of them because the ropes were rotten.

The ship was leaning upwards and people sliding downwards into the sea and a crazy man clutching a bundle of paper money just leapt from the top. As we row away from the ship everyone is swimming after us.' One of the five seaworthy lifeboats had picked up the man responsible for the catastrophe, Captain Valdemar Gundel, who had decided to let his passengers see the isolated pinnacle known as [Rockall] at close hand. He lived to face charges of criminal negligence but the ensuing court case was a farce. Both he and the shipping company were cleared of any responsibility for 653 deaths and the incident was airbrushed out of history until Orkney-based diver and historical researcher Kevin Heath located the exact position of the Norge. He is now heading the British contingent in a memorial expedition to HUSBANDS mark the centenary of the disaster.


Herman Lauritsen's story is but one told by survivors.  Others describe an even more harrowing situation, as related by "Phlebas" in a posting of a letter written by his grandfather, Hans (a survivor of the SS Norge disaster) to relatives back in Norway: [5]

We had beautiful weather the whole time [...] The first three days people were quiet, walking forth and back on the deck and talking to each other. The day before the terrible tragedy, people began to enjoy themselves, dancing on the deck, laughing and having a good time. At 10:00 I went to bed and slept all night, only to be awakened early I the morning by a terrific crash. I rushed out of bed to find my clothes, but someone had taken mine by mistake. I heard water rushing under [?] and everyone was up on deck. I was the last one below. I found the stairs from the lower deck broken, so I had to climb to the middle deck. It was crowded at the exit, everyone wanting to be first. I finally got through and saw a terrific sight. The deck was full of adults and children half-dressed and running and crying and calling to each other.

...I went over to the side of the ship and it stood still. I saw it had started to sink some and I saw the ship’s crew coming with life belts on. I knew it was grave, so I ran down to find a life belt and some clothes, but the water was already up to the bearths and I had to get back on deck. Three sobbing elderly ladies asked me to find them a life belt. I ran down again, not finding anything. Now the water was coming up so fast, suitcases and other debris were floating all over. I came back up without anything and they were desperate. I stood and looked at the people. I could not realize that we all should die now. Many were on their knees praying and crying, others were wringing their hands in despair....

Hans managed to jump into one of the lifeboats that had first turned upside down while becoming caught in a tackle, but was freed afterwards by cutting the ropes with an axe.  He continued:

...The Norge should have been sailing north of the area, when it hit the Rockall Bank in the Atlantic Ocean. We could see the ship was sinking fast and the water was rushing over the front deck, then the stern part of the vessel went down. The people had crowded together, but we didn’t hear any crying because the wind took the sound away. Soon we could not see the ship anymore. Slowly, the stern came up and it went under again with about 650 people. It was a sad moment, and everyone in the boat wept. One had his mother, seven sisters and one brother. And others had relatives on board. Now we could wait no longer, the ones who could, began to row.

These are just a portion of the personal memories available in the recounting of events during the Norge's sinking.  And what of Josefine Humberstad's story?  As a non-survivor, we will never hear her words or impressions of that day in June 1904, when so many lives were lost to the sea.  Were she and her traveling companions awake and awaiting breakfast when they heard and felt the first danger sign, like so many others?  Were they able to keep together as they struggled upward to the deck to assess the situation, or did they become separated and face the end without a friend or family member to cling to?  Although her fate and that of many others aboard the SS Norge are known, their experiences can never be fully imagined.


The Norwegian author, Per Kristian Sebak, also had many questions about the wreck of the SS Norge and the experiences of its passengers.  Sebak did extensive research on the shipwreck and related events and wrote Titanic's Predecessor:  The S/S Norge Disaster of 1904 (Seaward Publishing, February 29, 2004).  You will find many additional stories in Sebak's book.

There are also many websites containing information about the SS Norge disaster.  Here are just a few:




Sources:

[1] Vital statistics from tombstone inscriptions at Aure Immanuel Cemetery, Beltrami County, Minnesota; Humberstads' immigration year from 1930 U. S. Federal Census for Buzzle, Beltrami, Minnesota; Norway residential information from Digitalarkivet (http://www.arkivverket.no/digitalarkivet), 1900 Norway census, Davik, Fjordane, Norway; U. S. residential information from 1910 U. S. Federal Census, Place:  Buzzle, Betrami, Minnesota; Roll:  T24_690; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0023; FHL microfilm: 1374703 (Jorgen and Anne Humberstad, with son "Rafenus," age 14).
[2] Digitalarkivet (http://www.arkivverket.no/digitalarkivet).  Digitized parish records for Davik/Davik, Confirmation Records, September 27, 1903, Josefine Karoline Jorgensdatter (born at Humbørstad farm).
[3] Digitalarkivet.  Passenger list for the June 28, 1904 expedition of the SS Norge.
[4] Gourlay, Kath.  "Death on the rocks; How the reckless captain of a ship unfit to sail killed 653 people in search of a new life... and how their bitter legacy was ignored."  Daily Mail [London (UK)] 07 Feb 2004:  36.
[5] The New Coffee Room; post by "Phlebas" regarding a letter by his grandfather, Hans, a survivor of the SS Norge.

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