When wanderlust runs in the family

One family’s story of immigrants to the US who later returned home to Norway

Photo courtesy of Mette Biering Christiansen
Edle, the author’s grandmother, at the wheel of the steamship Salvatore Di Giorgio.

Mette Biering Christiansen
Red Wing, Minn.

The majority of the immigrants to the U.S. from Norway up to about 1880 were single men and families primarily from mountain farms and farms along the western fjords. This changed from the 1880s, when the immigrants more often would be single younger men and women, from towns and with education, who would travel to the U.S. to search for new opportunities, earn money, and experience a different world. About 25 percent of these Norwegian immigrants returned to Norway after some time. Evidently I have it in my blood—I am a Norwegian-born woman, now living in Minnesota, who has previously lived and worked in Houston, Texas, and I have already moved my belongings to and from Norway a couple of times. Just like some of my ancestors did.

A legacy of immigration
Three of my four grandparents lived in the U.S. for a while as well as one of my aunts, at least one grand-aunt, one of my great grandfathers, and maybe more. Like most Norwegians, I also have relatives who decided to stay in the U.S. and Canada.

My father’s parents, Christian and Edle Biering (maiden name Jorkjend), were both born in the small southern coastal town of Tvedestrand, Norway. Christian was born in 1878, Edle in 1888, and they had both passed away before I was born. I was curious to know more about these grandparents since they were not there to tell their stories, and my father, Christian Fredrik, would from time to time tell snippets of exciting tales. At home we had a few possessions from the U.S. that my grandparents brought with them: a deer hide with the embossed head of—I think it was—Pontiac (an Ottawa Chief), bow and arrows (which my father played with as a kid), a beaded purse, a couple of chairs, photos, and adventure stories like the time my grandfather met Buffalo Bill and they competed in target shooting (or perhaps my grandfather just saw one of his shows in Baltimore) or the fact that he was a master shooter of banana snakes onboard the ship where he was captain, and so on.

Many years ago I asked my father to write down some of the things he could remember about his parents, and he produced a 10-page handwritten storybook about their lives in Norway, the U.S., and England.

Photo courtesy of Mette Biering Christiansen
Christian Biering, the author’s grandfather.

Farfar’s journey
My grandfather Christian completed middle school and with school opportunities limited in Tvedestrand, he did like many others at the time and became a sailor before he was 15 years old. Back then, a person was considered grown after they were confirmed, and a private confirmation was held for Christian so he could leave home. I was told that the common gift for a confirmed man was a suit, a hat, a walking stick, a pocket watch, and a box to keep his tobacco or cigarettes in.

Christian’s first trip took him as a deck boy to Australia on his father’s sailing ship, the bark Nina. He returned to Norway to complete his naval education and left again as an officer on his father’s sailing ship bark Dovre when he was 17 years old. He later worked as a captain on some of his uncle’s steam ships.

Before he was 24 years old, he had the offer to invest in three fruit cargo ships that were going to be built at Akers Mekaniske Verksted in Oslo; 3/5 in the ship he would captain and 2/5 each in the two other ships. It was a lot of money for a young man to invest, but he agreed and stayed in Oslo so he could supervise the building of the ships.

From 1903 Christian sailed as the captain of the steamship Salvatore Di Giorgio, named after one of the owners of the Di Giorgio Fruit Company and Di Giorgio Importing & Steamship Company of Baltimore, which had chartered the ship. Joseph Salvatore Di Giorgio came from Italy and he quickly made good money, was nicknamed the Fruit King, and was at one time the world’s largest fruit producer.

According to a company brochure that I have, “While the steamers carry fruit from the tropics on their trip North, they are designed especially for the comfort of passengers, and all accommodations are first class. They include commodious, well lighted, well ventilated state rooms, all of which are on the main deck forward of the machinery, handsomely furnished, and the comfort of the passengers are looked after by a staff of stewards and other attendants. … The greatest care is given to the cuisine, skilled chefs are employed, and the tourist is offered the best food furnished by the markets of Baltimore, Jamaica and Cuba.”

Photo courtesy of Mette Biering Christiansen
Circa 1911 onboard Salvatore Di Giorgio; the captain and wife having a coffee break.

The weekly trips would start at Bowly’s Wharf in Baltimore and visit Port Antonio and Kingston in Jamaica or Sama, Baracoa, Cuba, in addition to other islands in the West Indies. A round-trip ticket cost $50, including all expenses during the 12- to 14-day trip.

My grandfather enjoyed this more laid-back time, touring East Coast passengers around the Caribbean and bringing bananas and pineapples back to Baltimore from Cuba and Jamaica. He enjoyed socializing with his passengers, was a good target shooter, and often had unusual pet animals onboard like monkeys and mini goats. Christian would occasionally visit Norway—once in 1905 when it looked like it could be a war between Norway and Sweden, and again in 1909 when he got engaged to my grandmother, Edle.

Farmor’s journey
After middle school, Edle was taught housekeeping, textile skills, singing, and piano. She worked as a housekeeper from the time she was 18 years old. In 1910 she traveled on her own to the U.S., where she married my grandfather in Baltimore. They sailed together aboard Salvatore Di Giorgio, and had a happy time together.

Edle enjoyed photography, developing and printing her own photographs onboard the ship. She would of course see many exotic and unusual things for her. She enjoyed other skills like wood carving and carpet weaving, and a piano would be brought aboard the ship so she could continue singing and playing music. I am sure she would also entertain the passengers occasionally!

For a short while my grandparents were not the only Norwegian couple onboard the steamship Salvatore Di Giorgio. That must have been somewhat unusual, since two different New York newspapers wrote about the three happy Norwegian couples aboard the ship. From the New York Evening Journal sometime in March 1911, one could read in “Brides on a Honeymoon Ship With Three Happy Sailormen” that “If Dan Cupid keeps up his work the Atlantic Line fruit steamship Salvatore Di Giorgio, in port to-day, will soon become a floating place of bliss. Three of the officers have been hit by darts already and have married. Their wives sail with them on every voyage, and in fair weather or foul, three little households are kept aboard ship for three lucky officers.”

Back to Europe
Well, bliss usually has an ending—Europe was a place of social unrest at this time. My grandparents decided they wanted to be closer to Norway; the Caribbean Islands were nice but maybe a bit too exotic in the long run. Another factor was that they were expecting their first child, and giving birth in the Caribbean probably seemed a bit scary to my grandmother.

In the fall of 1912, they left Baltimore and settled in London, where my aunt was born. My grandfather continued to sail as a captain on different ships in Europe and my grandmother and aunt would sail with him from time to time.

They left London and returned to Tvedestrand in 1918 when the first World War was over. My grandfather’s father had passed away, and Christian inherited his positions as Harbor Master, Harbor Pilot coordinator, and the local seamen’s job coordinator. He would add different agencies to his business, and one of them was for the Norwegian America Line, which he kept until he passed away in 1951.

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.