New details on Alex Kowal’s journey to America

In a recent post, I recounted the story of my grandfather Alex Kowal’s journey to America, which I pieced together from travel and immigration documents. Since then, I have learned some interesting new information about the friends who traveled with him, the U.S. contact they were all supposed to meet and a tantalizing clue as to why Alex and his friends left Ukraine in the first place.

To recap, my grandfather left his hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka, Ukraine and made his way to Libau, Latvia. There, in September 1912, he boarded the S.S. Kursk headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was only 20 at the time. Along with many others on the ship, Alex was being brought over to Canada to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway and he spent the winter of 1912-1913 chopping down trees in a logging camp in Thetford Mines, Quebec. A few months later, in March 1913, Alex left Canada for the United States, crossing the border at Newport, Vermont on a Boston & Maine Railway train headed for New York.

Map showing pre-World War I political boundaries identifying key stops on Alex Kowal's journey.

Alex didn’t embark on this adventure alone. The documents show that when he boarded the ship to Canada and when he crossed the border into the U.S., Alex was in the company of three friends – Lucas, Kondrat and Wassily. And these four travelers told U.S. border officials they were all going to meet up with a guy named Nestor Greshevitz who lived in Kreischerville, Staten Island – the town where my grandfather eventually settled.

But that’s where the trail ran cold. I couldn’t find any trace of Lucas, Kondrat or Wassily after the 1913 border crossing. And there was no evidence of a Nestor Greshevitz living in Kreischerville.

So I was left to ponder these unanswered questions:

  • What made Alex leave Kharucha Vel’ka? And how did a young man with little or no education manage to travel 600 miles overland to Latvia and then across the ocean to a job opportunity in Canada?
  • How did Alex join up with Lucas, Kondrat and Wassily? And where did these friends all go after they got off the train from Canada?
  • And what was the connection to Nestor? Did Alex and his friends ever meet up with him in Kreischerville?

My breakthrough came by sheer accident. I went back to look at my grandparents’ 1930 census record – a document I had scrutinized many times before – to verify their street address. And there I noticed, living right next door to the Kowal family (on a street that only had two houses), was a guy named Nestor Grushewsky.

I did a search on ancestry.com and found out that Nestor was Ukrainian and that he traveled to the U.S. from Libau, Latvia in April 1912 – a few months before my grandfather left that port for Canada. This had to be the same Nestor!

I also saw that Nestor was in someone’s family tree on ancestry.com. So I contacted that person, a very nice woman named Carolyn Prehodka Wolfe, who had the information I was looking for. It turns out that Carolyn’s aunt, Anna Prehodka, married Nestor’s son Alexander while another aunt, Tekla (Tessie) Prehodka, married a man named Lucas Orol – the same Lucas who traveled to America with my grandfather and the others. And Carolyn’s ancestors, the Prehodkas, came from Neverkov, just down the road from Kharucha Vel’ka.

Based on my conversations with Carolyn, and some further digging through the records, this is what I have learned.

Nestor Grushewsky was born in Ukraine in 1883. He served as a sergeant in the Russian Army during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and worked for a while on the police force of Warsaw, Poland (then a part of Russia). In April 1912, he emigrated to the United States, sailing out of Libau on the S.S. Litaunia. He put down roots in Kreischerville (now Charleston), Staten Island, where he got a job as a kiln setter at the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, one of the largest employers there.

Nestor’s wife Veronica and son Alex soon followed him to Staten Island, and the Grushweskys later had two daughters, Olga and Anna. Nestor was a Staten Islander for the remainder of his life, passing away in April 1971 at the age of 87.

Lucas Orol was born in Kharuchka Mala, within walking distance of Kharucha Vel’ka, in October 1892 – the same year my grandfather was born. So it’s fair to assume that Alex and Lucas knew each other from a young age, well before they boarded the boat to Canada.

After his arrival in America, Lucas moved to Staten Island and, by 1916 at the latest, he married Tekla (Tessie) Prehodka. Lucas also must have remained friends with Alex. The 1920 census shows that Lucas, Tessie and their three-year old son Henry were living on Arthur Kill Road on Staten Island – right next door to the Kowal family. The Orols’ names were garbled by the census taker but it’s definitely them.

By 1930, the Orol family was living in Manhattan. Eventually, they settled in Metuchen, New Jersey, a short drive from Staten Island. Lucas died in Metuchen in May 1979 – coincidentally, the same year my grandfather died.

A fellow named Conrad Condlinsky also appears in the picture. I am pretty sure, but not 100% positive, this is the same Kondrat who traveled with Alex and Lucas from Libau to Canada to the U.S. In the 1920 census, Conrad is living as a boarder in the Orol’s house on Arthur Kill Road. The census record indicates that he came to the U.S. in 1913. And, while Conrad seems to have disappeared in the 1930 census, I know that he later returned to live as boarder in my grandparents’ home.

Conrad worked in the Nassau Smelting Co. plant on Staten Island, which was a pretty awful place to work. My grandfather Alex worked there for a short while too but felt it was far too dangerous.

The passenger manifest for the S.S. Kursk notes that Kondrat left a wife back home in Ukraine. There is no evidence that she ever followed him to the States, and I don’t know what ultimately became of Conrad Condlinksy.

So I have now been able to account for Nestor and two of my grandfather’s three traveling companions. The only one unaccounted for is Wassily Czemeris (or Tschemeris). I still don’t know what became of him.

And I know that Alex, Nestor, Lucas and (probably) Conrad remained connected for years following their arrival in America. Of course, those ties weakened over time and I think there may have been some bad blood between the Kowal and Grushewsky families even though they lived next door.

What I still don’t know is how the men all met and how they joined together on their trip to America.

Carolyn remembers hearing that the men were running away from some sort of trouble. It may have had something to do with a workers’ protest that led to some sort of crackdown. I never heard anything like this in my family, although my grandfather didn’t speak very much on this topic.

But I do remember my grandfather telling me that he had an older brother who was taken away by soldiers while he hid, and that he left not long after that. I understood my grandfather to be saying that his brother was being forcibly taken into the military. But maybe it was something else. I wonder if I’ll ever find out.

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6 Responses to New details on Alex Kowal’s journey to America

  1. Rob says:

    I thank you so much for posting this, I am trying to do a family tree and I was stuck on my grandmother’s side. My great-grandfather is Nestor Grushewsky (my grandmother is Olga Grushewsky). And this told me some history upon the family as well. If you know anything else upon Nestor, Veronica, Alex, Anna or Olga. Please post something or contact me at my email. crazysk8zero@gmail.com.

    • johnkowal says:

      Hi Rob, thanks for posting this. I remember meeting your grandmother Olga on more than one occasion. I particularly remember talking with her at my grandfather’s funeral in 1979. She knew that our family self-identified as Polish (my grandmother was Polish) and made a big point of telling me my grandfather was Ukrainian, not Polish, and that I shouldn’t forget it.
      I don’t know a whole lot about Nestor’s back story and origin, but I do have an obituary from the Staten Island Advance that provides some interesting background. I’ll send it to your e-mail account over the weekend.
      The obituary says he came from Kiev but I would take that with a grain of salt. My grandfather’s obit also said that but I know for sure that he came from Kharucha Vel’ka, closer to Rivne. There’s a pretty good chance that Nestor came from the same area.
      If you haven’t checked with USCIS to see whether there are any files relating to Nestor, you should. If he ever filed for citizenship, you can probably get his petition for naturalization that will provide a home town. If he didn’t, he had to file an Alien Registration Form in 1940 that will also have useful info.
      Finally, I met a friend in this research who is related to Olga’s older brother Alex. She may have some further information. I’ll put the two of you in touch by e-mail.
      Best,
      John

  2. Pingback: My dad’s household in the 1940 census | John Kowal's Family History Blog

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