Enroute to Wisconsin in 1869

On June 8, 1869, Elias and Kari Borresen arrived in the New York harbor aboard the ship Britannia. About four weeks before and married just months, they had left Norway for America. I’ve wondered about their journey from New York to Pigeon Falls, and based on some recent reading, here are my best guesses.

Earlier immigrants often took a steamboat from New York up the Hudson River to Albany, then canal boats to Buffalo, and finally a Great Lakes sailing vessel to Chicago or Milwaukee. The trip would last 7-10 days. (cf. Norwegians in Wisconsin, Richard J. Fapso). This was one possibility for Elias and Kari, but by 1869 the railroad had changed travel.

By the 1850s, the railroad had reached Chicago, and by 1858, linked Milwaukee to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Since the first we know of Elias and Kari in the Midwest is their temporary residence with friends in Halfway Creek at Holmen (near La Crosse), I am guessing they may have arrived by rail in La Crosse in the summer of 1869. (Incidentally, the Norwegian population of La Crosse County increased from 1,347 in 1860 to 3,381 in 1870.)

Next I discovered a “Report on Norwegian and Swedish Immigration, 1870” by an A. Lewenhaupt that included helpful descriptions – happily, for the very year 1869. In that year, Lewenhaupt wrote, only 5,903 Norwegians arrived in New York, many more arrived in the Quebec port.

After arriving on English steamships where passenger complaints were more about food than space, immigrants were met at Castle Garden in the New York port by a Danish official: they could exchange their foreign money, obtain railway tickets to any city in America, and receive transportation to the railway station. If needed, immigrants could stay free on Ward’s Island for up to five years – but in poorhouse conditions so no one stayed longer than necessary. Those with definite plans in America were the best off: Elias and Kari must have been in this group.

Lewenhaupt reported that many immigrants went west, usually arriving in Chicago without mishap, contrary to many stories of fraud. In Chicago, however, some were deceived by their fellow Norwegians or Swedes. Even those continuing through Chicago were often tricked by “runners” who perpetrated a lie that the cost of tickets did not include luggage. Then the scammers would “run” the luggage for a price – a major problem for immigrants often short on cash. For some, I guess, it was make a buck any way you could.

In Chicago, Elias and Kari may have transferred to another train, with or without mishap, and found themselves on their way to La Crosse. For the next three years or so, they lived with Halfway Creek friends. Syverine and Emil were born to them in those years and baptized at First Lutheran, Onalaska. In 1873, the family moved to Pigeon Falls and a permanent home.

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