One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Alexej (Alex) Kowal arrived at the dock in Libau, a port city in present day Latvia. There, he waited with 130 fellow Ukrainians who had all been recruited by the Canada Pacific Railway for manual labor jobs in Canada.
It’s not clear how my grandfather, a 20 year old with no formal education, traveled the 700 miles from his hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka all the way to Latvia. Did the railroad company scour the villages of Ukraine looking for workers? Or did Alexey somehow get to Latvia on his own? Probably the former.
Either way, on September 17, 1912, Alexey found himself dockside waiting to board the S.S. Kursk, a transatlantic ocean liner operated by the Russian-American Line. The Kursk sailed a regular route from Libau to New York with a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship was built in 1910, so it must have been reasonably nice and new.
It was surely Alexey’s first time on a ship. I wonder if he got seasick, as I do. If so, he had a long ten-day voyage ahead of him.
I found a copy of the ship’s manifest online. It includes a summary sheet showing that 758 “souls” departed from Libau that day, including 150 children under the age of 14. If you count the list of passengers, you see that 158 were headed for Halifax and 225 would continue on to New York. The 375 other “souls” were the Kursk’s crew members – a fascinating insight into what a labor intensive enterprise those old transatlantic steamers were.
You can find my grandfather on page three of the list of steerage passengers, line 13. According to the record, he was 19 years old.
Reading across the form, we learn that Alexey was single. He worked as a farm laborer and could not read or write. He had $18 to his name.
Under the column “race of people,” he was listed as Russian. But his religion, like so many others’, was listed as Greek Catholic – which makes clear he was actually Ukrainian, like almost everyone else bound for Halifax.
While Alexey had never been to Canada before, he declared an intention to reside there permanently. His “intended occupation” was “Railroad Labourer with assured employment” in Canada. With bureaucratic efficiency, these last notations were made with rubber stamps. Once in Canada, his travel inland would be on “C.P.R.” – the Canada Pacific Railway.
Interestingly, the rubber stamps cover up an interesting clue about Alexey’s life in Kharucha Vel’ka. Column 24 asks about previous employment in his home country. In column 25, we see the answer – partially hidden by the stamp – is “farm laborer.” In columns 26 and 27, we see he was doing that work since 1907 when he would have been 14 years old.
In the three rows directly beneath Alexey (lines 14-17) are three other Ukrainian men who were traveling with him. Six months later, these same four men would be listed together on another immigration record as they crossed the border into the United States, all traveling to the same destination of Kreischerville (now Charleston), Staten Island.
- Lucas Orol, on line 14, was a 20 year old carpenter (one year older than Alexey). I know from other research that he came from the village of Neverkiv, just a short walk from Kharucha Vel’ka. By 1920, he would be living living next door to my grandfather and his young family in a remote corner of Staten Island. Lucas eventually moved to Metuchen, New Jersey where he died in 1979 – the same year my grandfather died.
- Kondrat Katrewczuk, on line 16, was a 26 year old farm laborer. Unlike Alexey and Lucas, he was married. I believe, although I can’t prove, that Kondrat also remained a part of my grandfather’s life over many years under the name Conrad Kondlinsky. In 1920, Conrad was living as a boarder with Lucas Orol’s family. And in 1940, he was a boarder in my grandfather’s house, working at a nearby smelting factory.
- Finally, Wassily Tchemeris (also spelled Czemeris), on line 15, was a 36 year old farm laborer who was also married. When the four men crossed the border into the U.S. in March 1913, they all said they were planning to stay with Wassily’s brother-in-law – a man named Nestor Greshevitz (who turned out to be Nestor Grushewsky). But while my grandfather ended up building a house right next door to Nestor Grushewsky, I have not been able to find a trace of Wassily Tchemeris/Czemeris after the March 1913 border crossing.
Nestor Grushewsky emigrated six months earlier, sailing out of Libau on the S.S. Litaunia headed for New York. He was about 10 years older than my grandfather and, according to his April 1971 obituary, was a former military man who worked as a policeman in Warsaw (when it was still in the Russian Empire). But what was the connection to my grandfather? Did they know each other from Ukraine? Did they meet up in Libau?
The passenger manifest shows that the four men all signed up to work for the Canada Pacific Railway. Alexey, along with Kondrat and Wassily, were slated to go to Sudbury, Ontario – a key railroad junction deep in the interior of Canada, just north of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, Lucas was supposed to go to Thetford Mines, Quebec – a town situated between Montreal and the northern border of New York State, known for its asbestos mines.
For some reason, my grandfather and his two friends never went to Sudbury. They all were sent to Thetford Mines. But why? I know from the records that Lucas was hospitalized after the trip from Latvia. Did this play a role? Was it just a random bureaucratic decision?
As things turned out, the four friends spent the winter cutting down trees in Thetford Mines. Then, in March 1913, they all boarded a train for New York City. Their ultimate destination was Staten Island, where Nestor Grushewsky awaited them. In a few years’ time, my grandfather would settle there after meeting and marrying my grandmother.
Alexey’s timing could not have been better. In a couple of years, World War I would break out and emigration would have been not been an option. He probably would have been inducted into the war effort on behalf of Russia.
He never went back to the old country. I am not even sure if he kept up any correspondence with family members. I wonder if there’s any way of finding out if I still have any relatives over there.