Norwegians on the Titanic



The Titanic

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


A special feature by Scott Larsen, B.C. Contributing Editor

Why were there 31 Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans on the RMS TITANIC?

Simply put, there were 31 passengers with 31 different reasons.

Like Norwegian-Americans Engelhart and Helene Østby. This father and daughter were returning to America in the Titanic’s first class after a trip to Egypt. Or 21-year-old Karl Midtsjø who was immigrating to America for Chicago. Then there was Ole Olsen, a 27-year-old general laborer, who planned a new life in Broderick, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The Norwegian government became so concerned that so many of its citizens were leaving Norway, they began keeping statistics. Between 1905 and 1925, 80 percent of the respondents said “lack of access to profitable occupations” as the number one reason for leaving.

“Land of Happiness” is what Bishop Jacob Neumann, Diocese of Bergen, years earlier had called North America, in particular America. It was called “America Fever” and it was sweeping Norway. These Norwegians “hoped that a luckier star would arise over their families and their fortunes,” said Bishop Neumann in the 1880s. The same could be said in 1912.

On the RMS TITANIC, the Norwegians emigrants were farmers and engineers, sailors and general laborers. Four of the 31 were Norwegians who immigrated years earlier and were returning home. One Norwegian’s last residence was in Australia while another had been living in South Africa. All were coming to North America on the world’s largest and most luxurious passenger ship ever built.

First class tickets expensive

Few of these Norwegians and Norwegian Americans enjoyed the posh environs afforded to a first- or even second-class passenger.  Except the Østbys. They were the only Norwegians or Norwegian-Americans booked in first class who would have seen the Grand Staircase, accessible only to upper class passengers. Mr. Østby, a jeweler, could well afford a first class ticket. In today’s money, it would cost between $63,000 to $80,000.

The lowest fare for a third class passage was approximately $360 in today’s money. Affordable by today’s standards until you factor what the average wage earner made: between $700 and $800 annually for an American and Canadian worker in 1912. Much less for a Scandinavian. Many emigrants had to borrow money from family members just to immigrate.  Like Johannes Kalvik, a 21-year-old Norwegian, who worked for his older brother in carpentry and construction. He made $175 annually.

Second class passenger, Arne Fahlstrøm, an 18-year-old arts student, was on his way to Bayonne, N.Y., to attend cinematography school. He could afford the average price of a second-class ticket ($1,300 in today’s dollars): he was the only child of Alma and Johan Fahlstrøm, a “prominent couple… well known actors, instructors and owners of two theatres in Christiania.”

Fahlstrøm might have been the only Norwegian aboard who was served meals by the only Scandinavian worker on the ship: Charles Jensen, a 25-year-old Dane, who was employed as a dining steward for second-class passengers.


More Scandinavians than Irish

The Norwegians were only one of 28 different nationalities represented on the Titanic’s five-day voyage, April 10 – 15, from Southampton, England, across the North Atlantic, to New York City. While Hollywood may describe Titanic emigrants as overwhelmingly Irish, in reality they were slightly more than one-seventh of the total number of immigrants in third class.

There were around 706 third class passengers on this famous White Star Line ship. Of these, 120 were Irish. The rest included 44 Austro-Hungarians, 22 Belgians, 33 Bulgarians, 18 Russians, and 79 Syrians.

Scandinavians were well represented on the Titanic especially in the third class. Only a couple of years before, the White Star and other steamship lines called third-class “steerage-class.” Even though immigration officials in the U.S. and Canada continued to refer to these passengers as steerage.

There were seven Danes traveling in third class out of a total of 13 on board; 55 Finns, out of approximately 65; and 104 Swedes, out of approximately 125 (or more). This was more than the actual 113 Irish immigrants who were on board.

Swedes were the third-most nationality represented among the Titanic passengers while the British were first with 327 (not counting the overwhelming British crew of this British ship) followed by the Americans with 306.

One of the biggest advantages in booking third class passage on a White Star Line was the food. For the first time, third class passengers were served sit-down meals in dining rooms, waited on by waiters and waitresses. Before this, a steerage class emigrant had to bring their own food.

The White Star Line was doing what we call today “upgrading travel accommodations.” There was good reason for this. To garner more and more of the lucrative immigrant business away from its rivals, like the British Cunard Line or German lines. White Star officials knew emigrants would write back home to relatives and friends, commenting favorably about the voyage. It was a classic marketing move without spending a dime more in marketing. Save for extra price of food (cheap because the line bought in bulk) and the cheap labor to make and serve that food.

Shipping companies flooded Europe with leaflets and posters as well have ticket agents in various countries to entice emigrants to book with them over their shipping rival.

Destinations varied

The destinations of these 31 Norwegians were are varied as the hopes and dreams they carried with them. Brooklyn was the number one destination of seven of these Norwegians, followed by Chicago and Philadelphia with three each, Belmar, N.J., with two and other destinations like Inglewood, Calif., Cameron, Wis., Seattle, Wash., and North Dakota.

We know this famous ship did not make its final destination. Sinking in the early morning hours of April 15, there were approximately 2,200 passengers and crew on board. Only 700 survived while 1,500 perished, largely by hypothermia and drowning. Among the 31 Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans, only 10 survived.

In the following month, according to Ellis, emigrants across Europe, Scandinavia, and Norway continued to book passage on ocean liners traveling across the Atlantic, even with this treacherous 60-mile-wide “river of ice” and icebergs coming south from Greenland in 1912. The hopes and dreams of a better life were far greater than any iceberg standing in their way.

This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Scott Larsen

Scott Larsen is a longtime Roosevelt historian. A freelance journalist, he wrote about Scandinavians aboard the RMS Titanic ("Norwegians on the Titanic" in The Norwegian American, April 12, 2012). He immigrated to Canada in 2006 and lives in New Westminster, B.C.