One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Alexey (Alex) Kowal stepped onto American soil for the first time. He didn’t come through Ellis Island, like his future wife Katarzyna Bosakowska and so many millions of other immigrants from that same period. His port of arrival was a tiny train station in Newport, Vermont.
I wrote about my grandfather’s journey to America in three earlier posts. He left his hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka, Ukraine, sometime in 1912, and made his way to Libau (now Liepaja), Latvia. There he boarded the S.S. Kursk along with 130 other Ukrainian men recruited for manual labor jobs in Canada. Their passage was paid by the Canada Pacific Railway in return for their labor.
My grandfather made the trip with three Ukrainian friends. They appear together on the Kursk’s passenger manifest as Luka Orel, Wassily Czemeris and Kondrat Katrewczuk. (Luka later went by the name Lucas Orol and Kondrat, I believe, was a lodger in my grandparents’ house who went by Conrad Condlinsky. I have not been able to track Wassily beyond their entry to the U.S.).
The Kursk set sail on September 17, 1912 and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia ten days later. From the passenger manifest, we see that my grandfather was headed to Sudbury, Ontario. He had $18 to his name.
Wassily and Conrad were also going to Sudbury but Lucas, a friend from the nearby town of Nevirkiv, was headed for Thetford Mines, Quebec. For some unexplained reason, all four men ended up in Thetford Mines. They spent that winter in a lumber camp cutting down trees that would be turned into railway ties. That’s consistent with the history my grandfather told me many years ago.
It had to be a long, cold winter and the work was no doubt hard. Even though the men told Canadian immigration officials that they intended to reside permanently in Canada, less than six months after their arrival the four men were on the move again. This time they boarded a Boston & Maine Railroad train headed for the United States. On March 15, 1913, they faced immigration officers at the train station in Newport.
From the train’s passenger manifest, we see that there were 270 passengers on board. Of these, 252 were Canadians. It’s not clear whether they were immigrants or just visitors (probably the latter). The remaining 18 passengers, a mix of English, Irish and Russian nationals with a Syrian and a Finn thrown in, were all immigrants, listed on separate pages as “Class B.”
My grandfather and his three friends were again listed together on the first two pages of the manifest. His friends’ names are spelled a bit differently: Lucas Arjel, Wasile Tschemeris and Condrat Watryenshuk.
The four men were clearly traveling together, since they all listed the same U.S. contact – a man named Nestor Greshevitz who resided in Kreischerville (now Charleston), Staten Island. I have written about Nestor (his last name was actually Grushewsky) in an earlier post. He sailed for America in April 1912, ahead of the others. The manifest says he was Wassily’s brother-in law. My grandparents ended up living next to Nestor, on a tiny street in Charleston with only two houses, for decades to come. It was not always a cordial relationship.
According to the manifest, my grandfather was 19 (he was probably 21) and single. He was a laborer who could not read or write. The paperwork said he came from Russia, which was technically correct.
When asked to name a relative in his home country, Alexey listed his father – William Kowal. But on his 1916 wedding license, he says his father’s name was Felemon (or Philemon). Did the immigration officer have trouble understanding my grandfather? Perhaps, but I remember my grandfather also telling me his father was named William. So maybe that was his English equivalent for Philemon.
I have had no luck in finding any Kowal family records from the old country. But this is one tantalizing clue suggesting that my great-grandfather Philemon Kowal was still alive when my grandfather left his hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka!
On the second page of the manifest, we see that my grandfather had only $11 by this point – $7 less than when he boarded the boat in Latvia! So we can conclude that the job in Thetford Mines was not particularly lucrative. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t paid at all beyond the cost of their passage to Canada.
We also learn from page two that Alexey was 5 feet 6 inches tall with medium complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He had no mental or physical deformities and no identifying marks. He was neither a polygamist nor an anarchist.
His hometown is listed as Molaruka. I suspect that meant “mala Ruska” or “little Russia,” an old-fashioned term for Ukraine.
Finally, in addition to the passenger manifest I have located an index card record created for Alexey that day. In the lower right corner, the immigration officer entered that beautiful word: “admitted.”
And so my grandfather was admitted as an immigrant that day. He didn’t have much to offer – he was illiterate and poor like so many immigrants then and now. But he worked hard his whole life, making it possible for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live in unimagined prosperity. We all owe him a debt of gratitude – and I for one will have a drink tonight to toast Alex Kowal’s first day in America.