My grandfather’s journey to America finally comes into focus

For two months, I searched for evidence of my grandfather Alex Kowal’s arrival in America. Census records helped me zero in on 1912 or 1913. Recalling that my grandfather told me he spent time in Canada before coming to the States, I scoured the records of border crossings. But I could not find Alex’s “Ellis Island moment” until this week, when Alex’s naturalization papers provided the key.

In a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen, dated November 9, 1940, and a Petition for Naturalization, dated May 25, 1945, Alex stated with precision that he entered the country from Canada on March 15, 1913 on Boston & Maine Railroad train no. 86 under the name Alexey Kowal. His immigration was processed at the B&M train depot in Newport, Vermont.

My grandfather’s naturalization papers also indicate that Alex/Alexey “emigrated to the United States from Lubawa, Poland.” Lubawa is a medium sized city near Gdańsk. Before World War I, the city was located in Germany (the German name is Löbau). I don’t remember any mention of a Polish sojourn, but I do remember my grandfather telling me he traveled for a time across Europe before making the trip to America. Maybe Lubawa was one of the last stops along the way.

With this new information, I was finally able to locate the entry card and manifest for my grandfather’s border crossing into the U.S. And the manifest led me to the passenger list for the ship that brought Alex/Alexey across the Atlantic. Pieced together, these documents bring the story of my grandfather’s journey to America out from the fog of history.

I now know that in September 1912, Alexey Kowal boarded the S.S. Kursk in Libau (now called Liepaja), Latvia bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. (It’s not clear how he got there from Lubawa but it’s interesting that the German name for Lubawa – Löbau – sounds so much like Libau. Perhaps there was some confusion about this nearly thirty years later when my grandfather was applying for citizenship.)

Postcard of the S.S. Kursk

Alexey was one of 130 passengers on the Kursk (about a third of the passengers on board) traveling with “assured employment” as “railroad labourers” in Canada. For efficiency’s sake, they used a rubber stamp for the “railroad labourer” designation. Some of these men (and they were all men) were bound for Thetford Mines, Quebec. Others, like my grandfather, were bound for Sudbury, Ontario. Inland travel was to be paid by “C.P.R.” – the Canadian Pacific Railway. I imagine the company footed the bill for the trip in exchange for their labor on the other side.

The passenger list notes that Alexey was 19 years old and single. He was actually 20. He had $18 in cash on him. In bureaucratic columns, the form reveals that Alexey could not read or write. He intended to reside permanently in Canada. His occupation in the country from which he came was “farm labourer.” And, like virtually all the other railway workers, he was Greek Catholic.

There were three other passengers listed immediately after Alexey on the passenger list:

  • Luka Arel, a 20 year old unmarried carpenter with $20 on him, bound for Thetford Mines, Quebec;
  • Wassily Czemeris, a 36 year old married farm laborer with $8, bound for Sudbury; and
  • Kondrat Katrewczuk, a 26 year old married farmer with a whopping $32 in his pocket, also bound for Sudbury.

I mention them because it appears the four men were friends. And their journey together didn’t end there.

The Kursk arrived in Halifax on September 27, 1912. I don’t know how long the trip took, probably somewhere been a week and two weeks. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy experience. Of the 382 passengers on the Kursk, 54 received the rubber stamp designation “hospitalized.” Luka Arel was one of them.

What happens over the next few months is not clear. The paper trail picks up six months later at the U.S.-Canada border. (I would love to find documentation of my grandfather’s time in Canada – the search never ends!)

The passenger manifest from Boston & Maine train no. 86 has the four men grouped together again (although the names are all spelled differently).

It doesn’t appear that any of men went to Sudbury. Instead, they all went with Arel to Thetford Mines, just north of the New York State border. Why the change? It’s not clear. It’s hard to imagine, once they got off the boat in Halifax, that the men had much say in the matter. But it turned out to be an incredible twist of fate. Sudbury was 600 miles further west, to the north of Lake Huron. If my grandfather ended up there, would he have ever made his way to New York? Isn’t it possible he would have ended up following the wave of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the territories of Manitoba and Alberta?

I assume that Alexey and his friends worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway during the fall and winter of 1912-1913. I’d like to imagine he chopped down trees in a CPR lumber camp, just as he told me when I was thirteen. I always loved that story. With a bit of research, I ascertained that the winter is prime logging season in Canada. So this certainly seems plausible.

But why did Alexey leave Canada after only six months? He told Canadian officials he intended to reside there permanently. Did he change his mind? Or did he always view Canada as a temporary stop on the way to America?

Thetford Mines wasn’t exactly Eden. The namesake mines were asbestos mines and the town had the dubious distinction of being “the Asbestos Capital of the World.” In photos from that period, the place looks pretty grim.

Whatever the reason, Alexey decided to come to America.

In the train passenger manifest of March 15, 1913, Alexey is once again listed as 19 although he would have been 21 by then. For his next of kin, he names his father William – the name my grandfather used when I interviewed him back in 1973. I’m glad that part of the story held up. On his 1916 marriage certificate, his father is listed as Felemon (probably a misspelling of Philemon), so I’m guessing that William was his anglicized version of Philemon. Or maybe the clerk heard “Villiam” when Alexey said “Philemon” and the name stuck.

All four members of the party are listed as “laborers” who are unable to read or write. They paid for their passage by themselves, presumably with earnings from their work in Thetford Mines. But in the space where the form asks for confirmation that the immigrants have $50 or, if not, to declare the amount they do have, Alexey has $11 – $7 less than the amount he started with back in Latvia. The richest member of the group had $26. So the job in Thetford Mines didn’t pay all that much. Maybe that’s the reason they decided to leave.

But the manifest reveals an additional, fascinating detail. The four men all have the same destination, Kreischerville, New York, where they were expected by Wassily’s brother-in-law, Nestor Greshevitz.

That name immediately rang a bell. Kreischerville was the old name for Charleston, the town on Staten Island where my grandfather ended up settling with his family – and where he lived for sixty years. (They changed the name from Kreischerville during World War I when German sounding names became politically incorrect.)

I can imagine Alexey, on those freezing winter nights in a Canadian logging camp, dreaming of the glittering prospect of Kreischerville. Six years later, Alex would be able to call it home – but not before a stint in the teeming immigrant community of the Lower East Side.

Presumably, Alexey and his friends continued on by train to New York and possibly on to Kreischerville. But for now trail has run cold. In future research, I hope to find out more about my grandfather’s three friends, not to mention Nestor Greshevitz and the Kreischerville connection.

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11 Responses to My grandfather’s journey to America finally comes into focus

  1. Yvette Jordan says:

    John, this is fascinating as well as a wonderful way for you to have some of your questions answered. I find that oral histories are a great way to start the journey to unveiling your past; this is something I do with my students in class every year.

    Thankfully, you were able to unravel your grandfather’s journey. I, too, can trace my maternal side back to the early 1800’s….I’m still looking to delve deeper into the history of my paternal side.

    Good for you!

    • johnkowal says:

      Hi Yvette!
      I am really glad I had the opportunity to ask two of my grandparents to tell me stories of the old days. Not all the stories hold up with the passage of time but most of them do.
      I also really appreciate my 7th grade language arts teacher, Niki Lazaris, who gave us the assignment to interview our parents and grandparents about the family history. I might not have done it otherwise. It’s nice to know that you can give that gift to the young people you teach.
      I would love to hear more about your own family history research. I’ve been watching Who Do You Think You Are on NBC and, by far, the most compelling episodes are the ones featuring African American family history – both for the insight into the world of free African American ancestors who did amazing things (like Vanessa Williams’ ancestor who fought in the Civil War) and when they trace family history back to slave days (Emmit Smith learned a huge amount about an ancestor named Mariah who had an incredible life story). We should get together over a drink and discuss!

  2. Martin McDonough says:

    John – intrigued by the story and very impressed with the Virgo level of research : )
    Have you been watching Who Do You Think You Are? It’s pretty good

  3. johnkowal says:

    Thanks Martin! That’s a great compliment when delivered by another Virgo. : )
    I have been watching Who Do You Think You Are? I didn’t know about the show last year but after seeing the first episode this year (Vanessa Williams) I downloaded last year’s season on iTunes and devoured it. I agree it’s a great show. I was particularly moved by the Brooke Shields’ episode when she learns about her grandmother’s difficult childhood in Jersey City and the Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker episodes resonated for me. I also was thinking of you when I saw the Rosie O’Donnell episode. Did you see it?

  4. Pingback: New details on Alex Kowal’s journey to America | John Kowal's Family History Blog

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  9. laura says:

    My family also came to Canada on this ship only a month later on october

  10. Pingback: The Kowal family moves to Staten Island | John Kowal's Family History Blog

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