Norwegian emigration, part 5
Few European immigrants, including Norwegians, were aware of the vastness of North American. Once reaching the port cities of New York or Quebec, many thought they were near their destination. However, after months of sailing, they were still hundreds of miles away from the agricultural west.
Before trains arrived in the 1850s, the route west first involved travel by waterways to reach Lake Erie. There would then be another voyage through two other Great Lakes to either Chicago or Milwaukee. For those landing at Quebec, it was upriver on the St. Lawrence southwest to Lake Ontario and then a steamboat south through the 1929 Welland Canals into Lake Erie.
For those arriving at New York, there was a nine-to-12-hour steamboat ride on the Hudson River north to Albany and then 12 days on the Erie Canal west to Buffalo on Lake Erie.
In New York City, the immigrants were most enthusiastically greeted by the many agents who offered to arrange transportation to the west. For the river trip to Albany, there were steamships and less expensive sailing sloops or barges pulled by steamboats. Unscrupulous agents made promises that were unfulfilled. Bargain-priced tickets may have been good only as far as Albany or Buffalo – not for the complete trip to Milwaukee or Chicago. And unexpected baggage fees could occur at each change of vehicle.
The Norwegian consulate in New York City provided no assistance, and there were Norwegian swindlers, who made a living in New York and Milwaukee by taking advantage of their newly-arrived countrymen. However, for some years after 1854, the state of Wisconsin had a Norwegian representative in Quebec to help inexperienced Norwegians. Minnesota did the same in the 1860s.
The 1825 Erie Canal extended for 362 muddy miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. There were canal boats with passenger comforts, but few immigrants had the means. The other cargo-carrying canal boats were like barges with boxes without windows, beds, cooking stoves or other amenities. The boat was pulled by one or two mules no faster than three miles per hour. Barring delays, the 12-days from Albany to Lake Erie included constant commotion with 83 locks to negotiate and frequent stops to unload cargo. The fare of $5.43 was equivalent to the purchasing power of about $168 in 2021.
At or near Buffalo, the immigrants boarded steamships and crossed Lake Erie west to Detroit, then north through Lake St. Clair into Lake Huron, still north toward the straits of Mackinac. Then it was south through Lake Michigan to Milwaukee or Chicago – all about seven days after entering Lake Erie, nearly a month after docking in New York and months after departing Norway.
The Great Lakes steamships were much larger than the sailing ships on the Atlantic. There could be a thousand passengers plus cargo. If cabins were filled, passengers slept on deck. Accommodations were not much better than on the canal boats, but the steamships traveled at a much greater speed. Immigrants were uninformed of the tales about steamships sinking in storms or exploding. In 1852, one steamship intentionally rammed a rival steamship carrying more than 830 immigrants, 300 of which drowned, partly due to the crew brutally blocking their escape. But for most, this segment of their journey was the least stressful. These steamers provided westward migration for Norwegians, Irishmen, Germans, Englishmen and Yankees (Americans from eastern states).
During the 1850s, railroads began to replace canals (at about the same cost) and then most of the long Lake Huron-Lake Michigan voyages. Both NY and Quebec offered special trains for immigrants, but they were slower and often sidetracked when the express trains passed by. They had no modern luxuries such as dining cars or sleepers. They might even travel in rail cars that had carried cattle and not sufficiently cleaned.
From New York, trains replaced the Erie Canal trip. Canadian railroads even replaced the Lake Erie voyage by connecting Quebec and Detroit. In 1852, rail service began from Detroit to Chicago, thereby also replacing the Lake Huron-Lake Michigan voyage.
For those who would eventually reside in southeast Minnesota, there would still be over two hundred more miles to go – to be continued.
Most information came from English translations of original Norwegian texts, “Norway to America” (1978) by Ingrid Semmingsen and “History of the Norwegian Settlements” (1908) by Hjalmar Rued Holand.