Maria Nilsdotter conquered the most challenging part of her emigration journey when she completed her trans-Atlantic voyage in 1875. This final chapter of Maria’s story chronicles her 1000 mile trek from Castle Garden, New York, to Clinton, Iowa.
While researching immigrant train travel, I came across a riveting memoir written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains. It recounts Stevenson’s 1879 journey from New York to San Francisco. As I read his travel memoir, I concluded that Maria likely encountered similar experiences during her cross-country expedition.
Maria’s rail travel commenced mid-June, soon after she completed in-processing at Castle Garden. Along with other westbound travelers, she took a ferry across the Hudson River to a nearby railroad station where she waited to board an immigrant train.
“There was a babel of bewildered men, women, and children. The wretched little booking office, and the baggage-room, which as not much larger, were crowded thick with emigrants…It was plain that the whole system, if system there was, had utterly broken down under the strain of so many passengers…porters infuriated by hurry and overwork, clove their way with shouts. I may say that we stood like sheep and that the porters charged among us like so many maddened sheepdogs…emigrants had to be sorted and boxed for the journey. A white-haired official, with a stick under one arm, and a list in the other hand, stood apart in front of us and called name after name in the tone of a command. At each name, you would see a family gather up its brats and bundles and run for the hindmost of the three cars that stood awaiting us, and I soon concluded this was to be set apart for the women and children. The second or central, car it turned out, was devoted to men travelling alone.”1
The lack of a centralized railway system complicated train travel during the nineteenth century. Nonstop trains from the East Coast to the West Coast did not exist. Like all passengers, Maria had to look out for herself, choose the right route, buy the right ticket, get into the right car, without waiting for someone to direct her. Westward bound passengers from New York traveled via three railway lines – the Erie, the New York Central, or the Pennsylvania Central.
Chicago, a central hub, served as a gateway city for transportation lines headed west. Although travel companies filled entire trains with immigrants who traveled from New York to Chicago, passengers had to exercise caution along the journey.
“Each railroad company sold tickets for travel only on its own route. When one company’s tracks ended, passengers had to gather up their baggage, walk to the next company’s office, and buy a ticket for the next leg of their trip. Since many small companies owned only thirty or forty miles of track, a long trip could require eight or ten transfers.“(2)
Based on the 1871 Handbook for Immigrants to the United States, I calculated that Maria’s railway fare cost approximately $20.00 (3)
Immigrant trains consisted of old and uncomfortable carriages where passengers “were crammed in like so many head of cattle.”(4) Stevenson’s account provided a detailed description of a typical immigrant railroad car.
“I suppose the reader has some notion of an American railroad-car, that long narrow wooden box, like a flat-roofed Noah’s ark, with a stove and a convenience, one at either end, a passage down the middle, and transverse benches upon either hand. those destined for emigrants on the Union Pacific are only remarkable for constitution, and for the usual inefficacy of the lamps, which often went out and shed but a dying glimmer even while they burned. The benches are too short for anything but a young child. Where there is scarce elbow-room for two to sit, there will not be space enough for one to lie. Hence, the company, or rather, as it appears a plan from certain bills about the Transfer Station, the company’s servants have conceived a plan for the better accommodation of travellers. They prevail on every two to chum together. To each of the chums they sell a board and three square cushions stuffed with straw and covered with thin cotton. the benches can be made to face each other in pairs, for the backs are reversible. On the approach of night, the boards are laid from bench to bench, making a couch wide enough for two, and long enough for a man of the middle height; and the chums lie down side by side upon the cushions with the head to the conductor’s van and the feet to the engine. When the train is full, of course, this plan is impossible, for there must not be more than one to every bench, neither can it be carried out unless the chums agree…Price for one board, the three straw cushions two and half dollars.”(5)
Immigrant trains operated for profit, not for comfort or speed. (6) They chugged along slowly at fifteen miles per hour on average in populated areas, and they made frequent stops. The trains halted at small towns to let off or take on commuting passengers, mail, or packages. When time allowed, the passengers could purchase rolls, sandwiches, or a cup of coffee, if they could elbow their way to the counter.(7)
Delays were commonplace. Immigrant trains had to pull onto sidetracks and wait as fast-moving luxury trains sped past. Longer delays occurred when a train wreck threw the entire railroad line into chaos. (8)
Aside from a lack of comfort and convenience, rail travel had many inherent dangers. The railroad Gazette for 1875 noted 1,201 accidents. (9)
“Train wrecks were all too common in the nineteenth century –boilers blew up, decaying bridges collapsed under the weight of trains, brittle tracks cracked, wooden passenger cars were set on fire by kerosene lamps or wood heating stoves, brakes overheated and failed. Because of the primitive signal systems, two trains were often mistakenly switched onto the same track and sent speeding into each other. In 1987 alone, there were 104 head-on-collisions in the United States.” (10)
The train trip from New York to Chicago took four to five days with no less than three stops every day for meals. (11) Passengers were permitted about twenty minutes per mealtime; breakfast in the morning, a dinner between eleven and two, and supper from five to eight or nine in the evening. They had to consume their food while keeping an eye on the train to board before it departed without them. Stevenson wrote, “Emigrants are not treated with the same civility as other passengers. In all other trains, a warning cry of ‘All Aboard’ recalls the passengers to take their seats; but with the emigrants the train stole from the station without a note of warning, and you had better keep an eye upon it even while you ate.” (12)
“A great personage on the railway is the newsboy.” He sold books, newspapers, fruit, lollipops, and cigars. The newsboy provided, for a fee, soap, towels, tin washing basins, tin coffee pitchers, coffee, tea, sugar, and tinned food, mostly hash or beans and bacon. (13) To save money, Maria may have partnered with other female passengers and shared the cost of the soap, towels, and tin basin. Early morning grooming aboard a moving train required a measure of skill and balance. If she wanted to wash, Maria had to fill a tin basin at the water filter opposite the stove in the railroad car. Then, armed with the towel, brick of soap, and the basin, she had to make her way to the platform of the train car. There she knelt, supported herself by bracing a shoulder against the woodwork, or hooked her elbow around the railing. A quick splash of cold water to the face and neck had to suffice.
Once the train was well away from urban areas, it picked up speed and could reach up to sixty miles per hour. As the train rattled along the winding route, Maria witnessed the changing landscape. Like many immigrants, she must have marveled at the sheer size and immensity of America.
Stevenson described his travels across the midwest as follows:
“All through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, or for as much as I saw of them from the train and in my waking moments, it was rich and various, and breathed an elegance peculiar to itself. The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long aerial vistas; and the clean, bright, gardened townships spoke of country fare and pleasant evenings on the stoop. (14)
CLINTON, IOWA (click on Clinton and view a google map of Maria’s journey.)
By the time Maria reached Chicago, “a great and gloomy city,”(15) she had traveled about 900 miles. When she arrived, she had to collect her baggage, board an omnibus, and make her way to a different railroad station. (16) There she boarded a train bound for Clinton, Iowa, located 138 miles west of Chicago.
Located in the eastern bend of the Mississippi River, Clinton was home to 9000 residents, according to the 1876 Iowa Gazetteer. (17) Most of them hailed from New England or New York, but the town had a growing immigrant population. It included Maria’s elder sister, Christina, and her husband, Olaf Nilsson. Christina, who immigrated to Clinton in 1872, could assist Maria in acclimating to her new life. It is more than likely she helped Maria find employment as a domestic servant.
The city’s principal industries included lumber mills, which employed more than 1000 persons, a chair factory, two paper mills, machine shops, boiler works, a carriage factory, and foundries. Churches abounded, Swedish and German Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and colored Methodist. There were also five banks, four schools, and two daily newspapers. (18)
A CHANGED IMMIGRANT
Years ago, when I examined a framed photograph of Maria, I discovered a surprise. Hidden behind the photograph was a thin, tintype image of Maria. It measured 2 5/8″ x 3 1/4″. Typical for the 1870’s the tintype shows Maria’s full appearance.
Maria Nilsdotter, tintype image taken circa 1875, in Clinton, Iowa. Original tintype is black and white, colorized version is courtesy of MyHeritage. Original in possession of author.
Maria wore a fringed cuirass – a form-fitting bodice that extended past her hips. The dress’s ruffles, bows, and fringe, the narrow sleeves with trimmed cuffs, and the scarf around her neck reflect a style popular from 1875-1877. (19) Perched jauntily atop her head is a hat embellished with feathers.
Did Maria select Clarke’s Photograph Gallery, the cheapest and best in town? The photographer succesfully blended the background and foreground, something that not every photographer did well. The chair served two purposes. It functioned as a prop for Maria to steady herself, and it provided a visual effect. Maria balanced one arm on the back of the chair and casually positioned one hand over the other to draw attention to the metal filigree bracelet. The dress, jewelry, and especially the hat, told a story. It conveyed to her family and friends in Sweden, that she had succeeded in transforming herself from a farm girl into a lady.
Popular during the 19th century, tintypes were inexpensive, costing just a few cents. They could also withstand the rigors of mailing. Maria probably ordered at least two tintypes. One she kept for herself, and the other she mailed to her family in Sweden.
“The photographs that Swedish immigrant women sent home with their letters provided additional evidence that powerfully communicated the benefits of emigration. Often, after only a few months in the United States, immigrant women went to studios and had their portraits taken to send home to friends and relatives. To viewers back home, these young women must have appeared utterly transformed. They had seen sisters, friends, and neighbors leave the village simply dressed, hatless, and in homespun. The images sent home showed the same women in store-bought dresses and wearing fancy hats. It was not just the clothing that appealed to young women but also the personal freedom and economic means that the clothing and studio portraits represented. Hats, in particular, were a symbol of social class. In Sweden, only upper-class women were permitted to wear hats. Swedish American women intentionally wore hats for their portraits in order to convey a message of social advancement. Acquisition of fashionable wardrobe may also have been seen necessary to attract male suitors.”(20)
Maria did not find a suitor in Clinton, as did her two sisters, Christina, and Anna, the latter who immigrated in 1880. They each married a Swedish immigrant. Drawn to a larger city and greater opportunities, Maria moved 330 miles to Omaha, Nebraska. As I discussed in a previous blog, she met and married an American, John Mathews Nichols. Maria gained her American citizenship upon her marriage.
After their immigration, did Maria and her sisters experience the hundår (dog years)? “Defined in Swedish-English dictionaries as years of struggle.”(21) Did they yearn to visit their family in Sweden? Maria, and her sisters, Christina and Anna, maintained contact with their family in Sweden. The 1909 probate record for their father, Nils Persson, listed each of the daughters’ names and locations.
“Enkan Kristina Nilsdotter boende i iova, Norra Amerika, enkan Anna Nilsdotter boende i iova, Norra Amerika dottern Maria Nilsdotter, gift med Nichols Omaha, Norra Amerika samt barnbarnen.” (22)
Translation: The widow Kristina Nilsdotter, living in Iowa, North America, the widow Anna Nilsdotter living in Iowa, North America, daughter Maria Nilsdotter, married to Nichols, Omaha, North America; and the grandchildren.
Maria Nilsdotter/Mary Nelson Nichols never returned to Sweden. She passed away in 1931 at age 76, shortly after the unexpected death of her son Charles. Two years later, in the summer of 1933, the youngest of the three sisters, 75-year-old Anna Nilsdotter Nyberg, traveled to Sweden. Her son, Carl Nyberg, age 39, accompanied her. Where they went and whom they visited is unknown.
Värmland calls to me. One day, I will return and visit Maria’s ancestral village of Skällarbyn. Until then, if any distant cousins read this blog, please contact me.
© 2021 copyright – Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved
- (1) Robert Louis Stevenson. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. (W. Heinemann in association with Chatto and Windus, 1922.), Digital Images. Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/worksofrobertlou0002stev/page/332/mode/2up : accessed 15 Nov 2020) 333.
- (2) Jim Murphy, Across America on an Emigrant Train, (New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1993). 20.
- (3) Handbook for Immigrants to the United States (New York, Hurd, and Houghton, 1871), Digital Images, Archive.org (http://archive.org: accessed 23 November 2020.)
- (4)Jim Murphy, Across America on an Emigrant Train, (New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1993). 20.
- (5) Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains with other Memories and Essays, (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897).googlebooks.com; 28-29
- (6) Joy K Lintelman, I go to America Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson (St. Paul Minnesota, Minnesota Historical Press, 2009),62
- (7)Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains with other Memories and Essays, (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897).googlebooks.com; 28-29
- (8)Jim Murphy, Across America on an Emigrant Train, (New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1993). 32
- (9)Robert C. Reed. Train Wrecks; a pictorial history of accidents on the main line. (Seattle, Superior Pub. Co.). Digital Images. Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/trainwrecks0000unse/page/26/mode/1up?q=emigrant+train. accessed: 15 Nov 2020).
- (10)Jim Murhpy, Across America on an Emigrant Train, (New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1993) 29.
- (11)Ljungmark, Lars. Translated by Kermit B. Westerberg, Swedish Exodus. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979, 82.
- (12)Robert Louis Stevenson. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. (W. Heinemann in association with Chatto and Windus, 1922.), Digital Images. Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/worksofrobertlou0002stev/page/332/mode/2up : accessed 15 Nov 2020) 360.
- (13)Ibid, 358.
- (14)Ibid, 344.
- (15)Ibid, 346.
- (16)Ibid, 346.
- (17)F.E. Owen. Gazetteer and directory of Clinton county, Iowa, containing a history of the county, and the cities of Clinton and Lyons. (Lyons, Iowa, 1876), Database Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/gazetteerdirecto00owen/page/n79/mode/2up : accessed 21 Jan 2021.
- (19)Maureen A. Taylor, Family Photo Detective, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tre Books, 2013), 109.
- (20)Joy K Lintelman, I go to America Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson (St. Paul Minnesota, Minnesota Historical Press, 2009,62.
- (21)Ibid, 94.
- (22)Jösse-häradsrätt-FII-79-1909-1909-Image-5080-page-116 pg 1.