Wednesday, May 06, 2015

635 Souls Missing: A Story of the SS Norge Disaster.

Story updated and reposted from 2013.

SS Norge, ca.1890-1900. The ship's capacity was 800 persons. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, digital ID def.4a15903)

Titanic's Predecessor

Nearly eight years before the sinking of the RMS Titanic, another maritime disaster occurred that should have signaled significant changes needed within the ship building industry.  On April 15, 1912, and after, the news of the Titanic sinking was predominate in media coverage and popular culture, in part because of the catastrophic loss of souls (over 1500) in the frigid waters off Newfoundland, but, also by virtue of its many wealthy and well-known passengers, who had been aboard the largest, most "sea-worthy" vessel to date.

In late June 1904, the SS Norge, a Danish iron-clad passenger liner, boarded passengers at ports of call in Copenhagen, Oslo, and finally Kristiansand, Norway.  The steamship, which was full of mostly poor European emigrants (Russians, Scandinavians, Germans, Britons, and a few Americans), was bound for New York.  On June 28, under calm skies, the Norge ran aground at Hasselwood Rock, the upper portion (cone) of an extinct volcano near Rockall, off the coast of Scotland, and sank rapidly.  Of the 727 passengers and 68 crew, many of the 635 who died were lost at sea in an area where no mariner in his right mind would attempt a rescue.

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Does the greater number of souls lost on the Titanic warrant greater attention and empathy than the fewer numbers aboard the Norge?  It is useless to compare, and even more difficult to understand loss when dealing with such large numbers.  The tale of human suffering is told with greater clarity when considering one soul at a time.  Among the lives lost at sea aboard the SS Norge that summer's day in 1904 was a 15-year-old Norwegian girl named Josefine.  She had just departed her homeland in order to join her parents and siblings in Buzzle, Beltrami County, Minnesota, where they had settled the year before.  When Josefine began her journey, excited about what life would bring in her new homeland, she could not know that her adolescent dreams would end nearly as soon as they had begun.

Family Lore

When I initially began researching the genealogy of my Johnson family line with a publication in mind, I paid a visit to cousin in Oregon I had not seen in some years, who was the only son of Carl and Thea (Johnson) Humberstad (Thea being one of my paternal great aunts).  I learned something about the Humberstads, her husband's family, that I had not known before.  Carl Rafinus Humberstad emigrated from Davik, Sogn og Fjordane Norway to Minnesota in 1903 with his parents, Jørgen Simon and Anne Martinsdatter Humberstad, and his sister, Oline.  Another of Carl's elder sisters, Josefine, left Norway after the rest of the family.  I was told that her passage had been booked on the ill-fated Titanic voyage, and that she never made it to America.

Who would not be intrigued with the possibility of a Titanic tale among the relations?  Being a self-appointed family historian, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this story, even if it was not about a blood relative.  It was too intriguing to leave alone, and in truth, any Norwegian-American experience appeals to the overall community of affiliated researchers.  So, I went back home to the Seattle area and began researching Norwegian census records and other appropriate sources, and I was able to verify that "Josefine Karoline Jørgensdatter Humbørstad" did exist, in Norway.  But, after reading Titanic passenger lists forwards and backwards, and checking U. S. census records, I simply could not find anything relating to her fate.  I called my cousin to say I was not having any luck proving the information, and asked if he was certain his young aunt had been on the Titanic.  But, he did not know anything other than what he had already passed along to me.

If I have learned anything from years of doing genealogy, it is that success can often be achieved by giving a problem a good rest and revisiting it later on.  Sometimes the wait can produce additional internet sources, and sometimes it is simply a fresh approach that helps most.  This is exactly what I did when I recently decided to do more keyword searches on the Titanic passenger list and Norwegians.  Of the links that popped up was one with a description containing the phrase:  "Titanic's predecessor," and this caught my attention immediately.  I found other references to the SS Norge disaster, but also to a British diving expedition in 2003 that discovered the exact location of the shipwreck in time for the centennial of the sinking.  There was mention of a passenger list.  The SS Norge event was significant enough to the lives of many Norwegians that I was hopeful my new search would be fruitful.

When I located the emigration list for the SS Norge on the Norwegian records database, Digitalarkivet, there was no mistaking Josefine among the names listed.  As expected, she was not among the few survivors; her fate was listed as omkom (dead, or lost).  So, my cousin's young aunt had not been on the Titanic, after all, but on a Titanic-like shipwreck.

More to come on Josefine Humberstad, her family, and her fate, in the next post:

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

Story updated (with new photos) and reposted from 2013.

Josefine Jorgensdatter Humberstad, with an unidentified young man--perhaps someone she intended to marry.  Photo taken in Bergen, Norway, possibly just before boarding the S.S. Norge for America, ca. June 1904.  Courtesy of Karen Terrien.

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 boundariesSogn 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:

Men, Women, and Children Fought for Life.
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:

Part I of "635 Souls Missing:  A Story of the SS Norge Disaster":

The Jorgen Humberstad family after the death of Josefine.  Jorgen and Anne are in front, with children Marie and Carl in back.  Daughter Olene is not present.  Photo was most likely taken in Beltrami County, Minnesota, ca. 1905/06, after Marie, the last family member to immigrate to North America, arrived from Norway.  Courtesy of Karen Terrien.


[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 (, 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 (  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.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A Stitch in Time

Some years ago, my husband and I were visiting my mother in Salem, Oregon, when a cousin-in-law called and asked us to stop by.  Wilma Moen had been widowed a few years earlier, and when we arrived at her  door she said, "I'm planning on selling the house soon, and I have something I thought you might want."  She took us to the master bedroom and pointed out an old rotary sewing machine sitting at the side of the bed.  The oak cabinet with three small drawers on each side was in near perfect shape, and opening the lid revealed a gleaming black machine with gold decals with the name "White" across the front.  The old treadle machine had belonged to one of my great aunts, Cora Johnson Moen, who passed away on 28 May 1975, at age 83.  I suspect that the machine had not been put to much use for a few years before that, since she suffered greatly from Altzheimers late in her life.

Fast forward to the present, and that same White Family Rotary sewing machine sits at the end of my upstairs hallway here in Snohomish County, Washington.  Although its history is much appreciated, it has continued to sit virtually untouched.  So, at this point, the machine has been been retired for about as many years as Cora made steady use of it:  some 44 years of productive use, followed by the same number of years of not much happening.  The present being a halfway point or anniversary of sorts for this important but silenced family tool and artifact,  I decided it was time to change all that.

"The 'Economy,' Sears Roebuck's first rotary model introduced about 1920. Manufactured by the Standard Sewing Machine of Cleveland, Ohio, it was replaced by the White 'Franklin [Family?] Rotary' about 1926."   Sears Roebuck:  The Company and Its Machines (ISMACS International--International Sewing Machine Collectors Society).

To start, I sent an e-mail to the company that holds the White manufacturing records.  The White Sewing Machine Company was founded in 1858, acquired by Electrolux in 1986, and finally, bought by Husqvarna.  Husqvarna Viking responded promptly after looking up the serial number FR 3209480:  "Your White Family Rotary was manufactured 1926 in Cleveland, OH."

Pleased to make your acquaintance, White Family Rotary from Cleveland!  It had traveled from Ohio to Minnesota to Oregon, and then to Washington.  My inherited sewing machine now also had a birth date and a birthplace, and the rest is... well, family history.

I was anxious to place the date of manufacture for Aunt Cora's sewing machine not just because I am appreciative of antiques, but because the information gives a little insight into how and why it was acquired in the first place.  The manufacture date of 1926 is a little too late for it to have been purchased as a wedding present for Cora.  I can only assume that as a young wife and new mother with few funds to spare, she must have saved up for this domestic "work horse" on her own.  Perhaps she tucked away a little cash under the mattress now and again, or dropped extra coins into an old canning jar with determined reverence after taking the eggs to market.  Finally the exciting day arrived when she ordered her brand new treadle sewing machine from the Sears Roebuck catalog, which was a treasure trove for farm wives east, west, and midwestern.

Cora (Johnson) Moen was born on 15 July 1891 in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.  She was one of ten siblings who grew up as part of an early 20th Century Norwegian-American farm.  As the eldest daughter, she must have had a daily chore list that would make your head spin.  Many photographs of her as a young woman show her either staring with grim resignation, or scowling.  Even so, when my mother was growing up, she counted Cora as a favorite aunt, because she was maternal and caring in spite of the serious attitude that served her best in her youth.

Cora Johnson Moen with her husband, Emil, and their son, Harvey; photo taken ca. 1930 on their farm in Dudley, Minnesota.

When Cora purchased her new White Family Rotary machine, she was living with her husband, Emil Moen.  Cora married Emil in 1923, and the couple had their only son, Harvey, the year following.  It was likely the challenge of keeping the family clothed that prompted the purchase--her farming husband, and in particular, their young lickety-split son, who was all rough and tumble boy.  Cora may have been replacing an older, worn machine, but in any case, a farm wife could hardly be without a means to make her own clothing, bedding, and household furnishings, especially during the Depression years. 

According to my mother, Aunt Cora made heavy use of her White Family Rotary.  She was always sewing something to use, to wear, or to give as gifts.  With a large extended family that included parents, six brothers and two sisters and their spouses, and a growing number of nieces and nephews, she probably used her sewing machine nearly every day for decades.  I like to think that the flowered dark dress she wears in the 1930 photo above was made on the very same sewing machine that sits in my home today.

Cora Johnson Moen in about 1960, posing with her son, Harvey, and daughter-in-law, Wilma, in Salem, Oregon.  See, Aunt Cora was indeed capable of smiling!