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Subject: Norwegian Sailors on the Great Lakes - 36-44
Date: Mon, 8 Jul 2002 10:38:59 -0700


The following selection is taken from "Norwegian Sailors on the Great
Lakes" published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA)
in 1928. The volume is out of print and not available from NAHA at where you will also find the first 33 volumes
of Studies and Records online. This chapter is published with the kind
permission of NAHA. The book this selection is drawn from is under
copyright and permission has been granted for educational purposes and it
is not to be used in any way for any commercial purposes.

The city of Racine, an important lake port in early days, was founded in
1834 by Gilbert Knapp, who had previously served for many years on the
Great Lakes as captain of the United States vessel " A. J. Dallas," and
had retired from the service in 1828. With two companions, William and A.
J. Luce, he took possession of a tract of land at the mouth of Root
River, where he built a cabin. The tract was announced as a village site,
and the "town," which consisted of a cabin and three men, was named Port
Gilbert in honor of its founder. This name was later changed to Racine.
In 1843 the new town was incorporated as a village, and in 1848 it
obtained a city charter. It soon grew to be an active industrial center
and an important port for lake shipping. {52}
In 1841 a company of twenty-one Norwegians arrived in Racine, but with
one exception they all went to the Norwegian settlement which had been
founded on Lake Muskego, a short distance to the west, in 1839—1840. The
one person who remained in Racine was Ann N. Selem, a young unmarried
woman, born in Voss, Norway, in 1812. She found employment in the family
of Joel Sage, and in 1843 she married Nels Johnson, who had also settled
in the village. Mr. J. W. Johnson, ex-chief of police of Racine, now over
eighty years of age, is their son. In 1850 Nels Johnson and his wife
moved to Decorah, Iowa, where Mrs. Johnson died in 1883. {53}
Torbjørn Gunlenson, born in Seljord, Norway, on April 6, 1806, came to
Racine County in 1845 with his wife Thora and one daughter. In 1846 he
moved to Racine, where he became a boarding house keeper. He died in that
city on September 4, 1880. His wife died two years later.
The arrival of these first Norwegians in Racine was the beginning of a
steadily growing influx of Norwegian and Danish immigrants to the city.
In 1849 a Norwegian-Danish Lutheran congregation was organized with the
Reverend Ole Hatlestad as pastor. {54}
"The Norwegians kept coming steadily after 1850," writes E. W. Leach,
"and in 1854 they organized a Scandinavian Methodist church and put up a
building at the south end of Huron Street, on the river bank. Rev. C. C.
Wildrup, the first Norwegian-Danish minister west of New York, organized
the church. The census of 1910 shows 770 born Norwegians in Racine. They
are law-abiding, industrious, progressive, a desirable and welcome
addition to any community." {55}
The Norwegian immigrants who settled in Racine were for the most part
sailors with their families. Even before the Civil War a number of
Norwegian lake captains and vessel owners were found in the city, and the
colony of Norwegian lake seamen grew rapidly. During the period of
ascendancy of sailing vessels there seems to have been a higher
percentage of Norwegians among the seamen living in Racine than in any
other lake port. Old lake captains still living who knew conditions at
that time assert that most of the sailors in the city in those days were
Norwegians, a statement which finds some confirmation in the unusually
large number of Norwegian lake captains then living in Racine.
About the maritime affairs of this lake port E. W. Leach says: "In the
days of Racine’s maritime glory from 1855 to 1875 or 1880 there was
organized in the city a board of trade, the membership of which was
composed of the men who bought and sold and stored and transported by
boat and rail — the wheat, lumber and other merchandise, the operations
of which constituted the backbone of the city’s mercantile life."
"A complete maritime history of Racine would fill a book of several
hundred pages. . . . There are scores of lake captains and hundreds of
sailors . . . citizens of Racine, whose descendants are still here . . .
whose adventures and achievements, if recited in detail, would make a
long and thrilling chapter in the Story. {56}
Of the numerous Norwegian captains, Hans T. Solberg, Erik Erickson, C. C.
Naleid and William Hall became harbor masters in Racine; others were
active as shipbuilders in the city shipyards, or gained well merited
recognition as able and faithful masters in the lake service.
Hans T. Solberg was born in Larvik, Norway, in 1820. In 1835 he came to
New York City. He sailed for some time on ocean-going vessels, and during
the Civil War he sailed two ships on the Gulf of Mexico out of Galveston.
Both of these vessels were captured, one by the Confederate forces and
the other by the Federal forces, and both were confiscated. It appears
that already at that time he sympathized with the North. After the Civil
War he returned to New York City. He made an overland stage journey to
the California gold fields, but returned later to Chicago and settled
shortly after in Racine, Wisconsin. He became owner of the schooners "
Magic," " Belle," and " Dresden," all of which he sailed as captain. He
died in 1899. {57}
Samuel Martin (Simen Martin Torbjørnson) was born in Kragerø, Norway, on
December 15, 1840, and began sailing on salt water when he was twelve
years of age. At the time of the Civil War, while staying in the harbor
of Nassau, in the Bahama Islands, he was coaxed on board of the
Confederate privateer and blockade runner "Oreta" under false pretenses
by her captain. This vessel, later called the "Florida," had been built
in England for the Confederate government. In the service rendered on
this vessel Martin had many remarkable experiences. After the war he came
to Racine, Wisconsin, and became a sailor on the Great Lakes. He was
successively captain of the schooners "Laurina," "Forest,"
Mt. Vernon," "Persia," "Silver Lake," and "C. Michelson," all of which,
except the " Mt. Vernon," were lost. After he gave up sailing, he joined
the Salvation Army and became a very active member of that organization.
Captain Martin married Miss Eliza Johnson of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and
had seven children. He died in July, 1915. {58}
Thomas Johnson, born in Kragerø, Norway, on February 24, 1840, came to
America in 1861, and served in the Civil War for three years. After the
war he returned to Norway, where he married Miss Christine Olson. He
returned with his bride in the sailing vessel " Monsoon," then carrying
emigrants to America. He settled in Racine, Wisconsin, became a sailor on
the Great Lakes, and rose to the rank of captain in 1873, when he sailed
the schooner "Three Bells." He was part owner of the schooner "Magic,"
sole owner and master of the schooner "Souvenir," and part owner and
master of the schooner "German." He is still living at the age of
eighty-nine years and draws a pension from the United States government
for his service in the Civil War.
In 1834, two years before Sheboygan County was created, William Paine and
Colonel Oliver C. Crocker built a sawmill at the first rapids of the
Sheboygan River. They also built two log houses, one in the present city
of Sheboygan, not far from the present location of the court house, and
the other near the mill, about three miles from the river mouth. This was
the beginning of Sheboygan, which during the period of ascendancy of lake
sailing vessels developed into an important port on Lake Michigan. During
the winter and spring of 1836 the site of the village was surveyed and
platted, and the sale of lots was begun the same year. At the close of
1837 the village contained about twenty houses, but the financial panic
of that year put a sudden stop to the mushroom growth of the projected
city. All activity ceased, and all who were able left the place, until,
at one time, only one man — Captain Thorpe — remained. "It was literally
a deserted village," remarks one writer.{59}
As soon as conditions improved, a new development began; some families
arrived every year, and in 1846 Sheboygan was incorporated as a village.
In that year German immigrants began to arrive in the county in large
numbers, and in 1847 and 1848 many Germans and Hollanders came. These
German immigrants left Germany because of political oppression and as a
result of the revolution of 1848. The state immigrant agent in his report
stated that 13,400 immigrants arrived in Sheboygan in 1853. The number of
Germans so increased that they soon became the predominant element in
Sheboygan County, and they remain so to this day.
Some Irish settled in the western part of the county, while the Norwegian
immigrants, who were chiefly sailors, settled for the most part in the
city of Sheboygan, where they soon formed a strong colony. In 1861 a
Norwegian Lutheran church was organized. In 1864 the Norwegian
Evangelical Immanuel Church, now Our Savior’s English Lutheran Church,
was organized and a church edifice was erected in 1866, and was dedicated
two years later. In 1867 a Norwegian Methodist church was organized with
Reverend E. H: Johnson as pastor, and a church building was erected. {60}

Sheboygan grew to be a thriving industrial and commercial center with a
population, in 1900, of 23,000, but for many years after its
incorporation as a village in 1862 {61} its growth continued to be slow.
" Up to 1875," says one writer, "the sound of hammers at the shipyards,
and the thuds of wooden mallets as they drove staves into barrels, were
the only tangible signs of business activity in this community." The
early development of the city was due to its location on a fine natural
harbor, and for many years the commerce of the city was confined to lake
traffic. A lighthouse was built at the harbor entrance in 1840, and piers
were built in 1841 and 1847—48. In the two latter years 453 and 525
steamers respectively entered this port, leaving out of account the large
number of lake sailing vessels. {62}
Connected with the growing lake traffic were the many Norwegian sailors
and lake captains living in Sheboygan, of whom we shall mention in this
connection the well known Gunderson family, of which eight members, James
Gunderson, his brother Andrew Gunderson, and his six sons, were all
captains of lake vessels.
James Gunderson was born on January 27, 1831, in Kragerø, Norway, and
sailed on salt water for some years before he came to America in 1854 or
1855. On his arrival in this country he made his home in Sheboygan, and
in 1859 he married Miss Anne Gurine Thompson, who bore him seven
children, six sons and one daughter. In 1858 Gunderson became a lake
captain, after he had served as a sailor from his arrival in America. He
owned the schooner "Liberty," but lost this vessel in 1872. He then
purchased an interest in the schooner "Transit" and sailed that vessel
for some time. His last vessel was the schooner "Industry," of which he
was captain and part owner. After the death of his wife, which occurred
in 1875, he married Miss Tomine. He died in Sheboygan in 1880.
Gustav Gunderson, the oldest son of James Gunderson, was born in
Sheboygan on May 8, 1860. At an early age he became a lake sailor, and in
1879, when nineteen years of age, he received his license as captain and
sailed the schooner "Maggie Johnson" for one season. He owned interests
in the schooners " H. D. Moore," " Lily E.," " J. A. Holmes," and in the
fish tug "Gunderson Brothers." He was also part owner of the propeller
"Kalkaska" and served as captain of that vessel for eleven years. At
present he is captain of the propeller "Argo." In 1884 he married Miss
Sidonie Koehn. They have had four children, of whom three are now living.
Martin Gunderson, the second son of James Gunderson, was born on July i,
1862, served as a lake sailor and became captain of the schooner "H. D.
Moore" and later of the "Christiania," which he sailed for five years. He
was then placed in command of the propeller "Susie Chipman," a post which
he held till his death, March 16, 1920. He married Miss Emily Erdmann,
who bore him two children.
Nels, the third of the Gunderson brothers, was born on September 27,
1864. After serving for many years as a lake sailor he became a captain
in 1886. The following year he married Miss Sophie Steckhan. Of their
four children three are now living. Gunderson became part owner of the
schooners "Lydie E. Reasser," "Sardinia," "Lilly E.," and of the
propeller " Susie Chipman," all of which vessels he sailed as captain. He
is now in command of the towing tug "Peter Reiss," owned by the Reiss
Fred Gunderson, the fourth brother, was born on September 7, 1866, became
a lake sailor in 1887, and after some years of service he became captain
of the schooner "H. D. Moore," which he sailed for two seasons. He then
took command of the schooner "J. A. Holmes," which he sailed for eleven
seasons, after which he sailed the propeller " Alice M. Gill" for eleven
seasons. In 1911 he took command of the steamer "Edward Buckley," which
he sailed for nine seasons, when he was placed in command of the steamer
"S. M. Stephenson." He married Miss Bertha George and has one child. In
1925 he retired from the lake service. {63}
Louis Gunderson was born on October 15, 1869, and after serving for some
years as a lake sailor he became captain of the schooner " H. D. Moore,"
which he sailed for three seasons. He then sailed the schooner " Lilly E
" for three seasons, when he became captain of the steamer "M. C. Neff,"
which he sailed for several years. He then entered into the fishing
industry, sailing tile fishing tug "Elizabeth G." and later the tug "E.
M. B. A.," of which he is still the sole owner. He married Miss Clara
Strains and has two children.
Theodore Gunderson, the youngest of the brothers, was born on January 3,
1873. He has risen to the rank of captain, and has served as a mate on
steamers and a captain of tugs. He now owns and operates the fishing tug
"Arrow." He married Miss Mary Usadel.
The Gunderson brothers had one sister, Martha Maria, born in October,
1870. She married, but died in 1893.
Andrew Gunderson, a brother of James Gunderson, was born in Kragerø,
Norway, in 1842, and sailed on salt water for many years before he came
to America in 1871 or 1872. After serving as a sailor on the lakes for a
short time he became captain of the schooner "Island City," of which he
was also part owner. Later he sold that vessel and bought the schooner
"Nancy Dell." He was married and had five children. His home was in
Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He died in 1919.
Another prominent Norwegian lake captain in Sheboygan was Anton Kjelson,
born in Risør, Norway, on April 15, 1838. At the age of thirteen he went
to sea. He returned home after eleven months, and found employment in the
shipyards of his native city, where he continued to work for three years
until he became well versed in the shipbuilding trade. He then went to
sea again, and continued to sail on salt water till 1866, when he came to
America, settling in Chicago, where he began to sail on the Great Lakes.
In the fall of 1866 he moved to Sheboygan and worked for a Mr. Lyman in
the shipyard for one season. In 1867 he again served as a lake sailor. In
i868, in company with four others, he built the scow "Silver Cloud." The
first lake vessel which he owned was the schooner "Arendal." In 1873 he
became captain of the schooner "Plymouth," in which he owned a one-third
interest. He sailed this vessel until it was lost in 1875. He then sailed
the schooner "J. H. Stevens" two years, when he bought a one-third
interest in the schooner "Dawn" and sailed it one season. He then sold
this vessel and bought a one-half interest in the schooner "Island City,"
which he sailed four years and then sold to Captain Henry Kane. Later he
sailed the schooner "Oscar Newhouse," and after that, in partnership with
Frank Geele and John Schmidt, he bought the schooner "New Haven," which
he sailed for a few seasons, when the same partners purchased the
schooner "Levi Grant," which they operated for two seasons. During this
time Captain Kjelson retained the ownership of the schooner "Oscar
Newhouse." In 1870 he returned to Norway and married Miss Aslaug Marie
Jørgensen, but he returned to America with his bride the same year. Of
eight children born to them five are now living.
Connected with the early lake traffic of this port shipbuilding became a
flourishing industry, as already noted. Mr. Stokes built a shipyard and
was a pioneer in this trade in Sheboygan. Shipyards were also built by
Mr. Loughlin, Mr. Gregory, John Thompson and the Olson Brothers, and by
Rieboldt and Wolter. Of the vessels on the lakes in 1897 twenty-three
schooners and twenty-two steamers, tugs, and propellers had been built in
Sheboygan shipyards. But since the life of sailing vessels especially was
usually short, we know that these were only a part of the vessels built
in that port. {64} In recent years no shipbuilding has been carried on in
that city.

<52> E. W. Leach, History of the First Methodist Episcopal Church,
Racine, Wisconsin, 41 f. (Racine, Wisconsin) ; History of Racine and
Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, 288 ff. (Western Historical Company,
Chicago, 1879).
<53> Leach, History of the First Methodist Church, Racine, Wisconsin, 42.
<54> History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, 397 f.; O. M.
Norlie, Norsk lutherske Menigheter i Amerika, 1: 93 (Minneapolis,
Minnesota, 1918).
<55> History of the First Methodist Church, Racine, Wisconsin, 41.
<56> E. W. Leach, "Odds and Ends of Racine Harbor History," in the Racine
Journal-News, July 30, 1021.
<57> History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, 612; Enrollment
of Vessels, District of Milwaukee, 1871. 1877, 1878.
<58> Racine Journal-News, July 30, 1921.
<59> Sheboygan Press, April 23, 1926; Carl Zillier, History of Sheboygan
County, Wisconsin, Past and Present, 1: 65 f. (Chicago, 1912).
<60> O. M. Norlie, Norsk lutherske Menigheter i Amerika, 1: 272. The
Sheboygan Press, April 23, 1926, under the heading "Our Saviours English
Lutheran Church" says: "This church was organized February 11, 1864, as
the Norwegian Evangelical Immanuel Church by Rev. Bioers of Milwaukee.
The first house of worship was erected March 31, 1866, and was dedicated
January 5, 1868. . . . In 1913 the congregation was reorganized under the
name of Our Savior’s English Lutheran Church, Rev. W. Wabsganss serving
as pastor until 1921."
<61> Ralph G. Plumb, Early Harbor History of Wisconsin, reprinted from
volume 17, part 1, of the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of
Sciences, Arts, and Letters.
<62> Sheboygan Press, April 23, 1926; History of Northern Wisconsin, 979
(Western Historical Company, A. T. Andreas, proprietor, Chicago, 1881).
<63> Sheboygan Press, April 23, 1926.
<64> Harvey C. Beeson, Beeson’s Marine Directory, tenth annual edition,
34 ff. (Chicago, 1897).

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