Full Article: Norwegians
Norwegians have been in New York since the 1600s. Dutch ships trading and colonizing in what would become present day New York, had Norwegian sailors as part of their crews. Hans Hansen Bergen (c. 1610-1654) of Bergen, Norway, was one of the earliest settlers in Dutch New Amsterdam. A shipwright by trade, he became a large property owner in Brooklyn. Bergen married Sarah Rapelje, the first female of European descent born in New Amsterdam. Both family names live on as street names in Brooklyn. In the following centuries Norwegian sailors and captains continued to be hired to sail to the area, and some of them stayed.
The first emigrants from Norway to come as a group to New York arrived on the Norwegian vessel RESTAURATION, in 1825 – the same year the Erie Canal opened. As more Norwegian’s arrived a small community formed in Manhattan. Later a bigger community formed in Brooklyn as sailing, ship building and other marine jobs shifted here. Red Hook became known as “Little Norway,” and by many Norwegians as the"Koloni".
In 1844 Scandinavian Methodists in New York purchased an old ship, the HENRY LEEDS, to serve as a church and mission. They renamed it the BETHEL SHIP JOHN WESLEY, later simply called BETHELSHIP. (Scandinavia includes Norway. Norway was part of Denmark until 1814, and would be part of Scandinavian Sweden until 1905. As far more Norwegian ships were sailing to New York than Swedish the congregation was primarily Norwegian. )
In 1876 BETHELSHIP was moved to the foot of Kane Street (then called Harrison Street) now within the Red Hook Container Port. “The ship became an asylum for destitute immigrants, supplying for them at once bed, table, wardrobe and sanctuary. It was a labor agency for hundreds, thus blessing not only the stranger, but those who employed him,” wrote J. M. Reid in his 1880 book on Methodist missions. It was there for about 4 years.
The Norwegian congregation also opened up a small church on the corner of Van Brunt and President Street, and maintained lodging for seamen at 56 Sullivan Street. The facility and services offered were later taken over by the YMCA. Bethelship still exists but like many Norwegians it has moved out of Red Hook to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
The tremendous growth of Norwegian shipping - 110 vessels in 1870, 1100 vessels in 1879 – increased the need for more churches and services. In 1878, the Norwegian Seaman’s Mission in Bergan, Norway opened in Red Hook a Norwegian Seamen’s Church. They briefly rented quarters near the Hamilton Avenue Ferry, before purchasing an old Methodist church building at 111 Pioneer Street. The church was used for 48 years, and then replaced by a larger church on First Place. Among its services, the Mission was a place for Norwegian sailors with no fixed addresses to receive mail from home, and a way for them to send money back to their families.
In the 1880s a collapse in Norway’s shipping business created a depression in their country and spurred immigration to the U.S.
The burgeoning steamship industry was ending the long dominance of wooden sailing ships and declining with them were sailing jobs of long tradition. The choices and opportunities were changing for Norwegians, and others, looking to pursue a living in the mariner trades.
Many Norwegians left the sea, and others looked for opportunities in Brooklyn.
The Norwegian Sailors’ Home was started as the Scandinavian Sailors’ Temperance Home in 1887 by Captain Magnus Anderson for the purpose of providing a safe place for the numerous Scandinavian sailors who came to the Port of New York.
It was planned as a safe alternative to what was seen as shady rooming houses and alcohol luring new immigrants, unemployed sailors, dock workers and others. On the other hand, the Sailors’ Home and the Seamen’s Church were looked on as unwanted competition by a strong coalition of independent ‘boarding masters’.
For a fee, they promised boarding, provisions, and jobs to sailors. According to accounts, tough and not always scrupulous runners (some Norwegians) were employed to rope in sailors coming off ships.
According to A. N. Rygg in his 1941 book Norwegians in New York these practices could be so offensive that the New York State Commissioner of Labor Statistics, in 1894 declared that the shipping system in the Port of New York was a "libel on our claim of being the foremost civilized nation on earth".
Initially located at 109 Williams Street, the Norwegian Sailors’ Home moved to 32-34 Hamilton Avenue, then to a large house at 172 Carroll Street. Reportedly the house was purchased cheaply because it was believed to be haunted. For more than 50 years it operated an employment office for sailors. The Scandinavian Shipping Office later took over this role.
Red Hook residents established The Bethesda Mission in 1899 to serve the needs of their community: including transient sailors. Operating under the aegis of the Lutheran Church of America, a substantial building was erected in 1905 at 22 Woodhull Street. The building, that had a main hall with room for over 500 people, still stands. The Mission provided lodging for homeless and needy men, housing at times, 200-250 men each evening. They were very instrumental in helping the sailors in Orkenen Sur.
Norwegian Immigrants also created their own mutual aid societies. An example of this was Court of Leif Erikson, an order of Foresters of America. Organized on February 27, 1890, it paid sick benefits for its members and had over 600 members in 1909.
In the 1890s the heart of the Norwegian community was concentrated along Hamiltion Avenue and its side streets. Many lived on the Avenue, which as the route to the Hamilton Avenue Ferry, teamed with life and traffic.
Gilbert Kenneth Gulbransen, in his work about his father, "Images of an Immigrant Life: A Remembrance and an Inmemoriam to a vanishing Immigrant Generation,"tells of the experiences of a young man who, in 1907, immigrated from Norway to Red Hook, to a community known as “Little Norway” or the Koloni. A place where the spiritual and the seedy vied for the attention.
Hamilton Avenue is “the gritty underbelly of the working class Norwegian colony" not just the link to the ferry and lower Manhattan, in Gulbransen's description. The avenue and its side streets “defined by its saloons and cheap nickel-a-shot whiskey drawn from spigotted barrels, pint side foaming schooners of lager, porter and ale served on a dank oak bar.” There was also music, dance halls, prostitutes and disillusioned drunks. Nearby to this was the Norwegian Sailors’ Home; a sober safe haven.
Large numbers of the Norwegian immigrants lived in a ‘sailortown’ along Commercial Wharf, Imlay and Van Brunt Streets among the warehouses, small businesses and lodging houses for transient mariners writes David C. Mauk in "The Colony that Rose from the Sea." They also lived in large numbers in the blocks around Erie Basin.
Young men and, occasionally, women in their early 20s with no family in Brooklyn, were rented space in private homes. Slightly less than half of them were “hallboys,” who lived in the dead-end hall spaces often found on the floor above and directly over first-floor entrances. ‘Tableboard’ a Norwegian-Americanism describing the practice of providing meals as well as space was also common. (Mauk, Colony, p. 158).
Norwegians worked on the water and many also catered to Norwegian sailors and sailing ships. Meat and provisions, for example, was the job of John Anson at the start of the 20th Century. A ship chandler, operating out of 95 Hamilton Avenue, he did business with many of the Norwegian ships, once supplying 400 ships in a month. His brother Tom was a Canal boat captain and his father Aanon Aanonsen was a ships carpenter who had emigrated to Brooklyn in 1849. Johan G. Normann, is another example. In 1883, he started a shop at 105 Hamilton selling tobacco, notions as well as Norwegian books and papers. Normann was also well known in the community at the time as place for transient sailors to pick up their mail and transfer money.
In the early 1920s, the international freight trade collapsed leaving as many as 1,000 Norwegian seamen unemployed and unable to get back home. With little to no income, many of them made shelters on a large area of landfill and rubble just north of Erie Basin.
In 1918, New York City’s Department of Transportation had bought the area and knocked down the buildings there with the intention of building a switching yard for the trains moving cargo along the waterfront. The plan was then dropped, and soon the remains of buildings were joined by discarded furniture, building materials and other large objects dumped there.
For the homeless Norwegians this place provided both a space and materials to construct the shacks. Economic conditions improved, briefly, during and after 1922. Many moved out, but the population swelled even larger after the Depression of 1929. This time, the Norwegians were joined by Puerto Ricans who found themselves in similar straits.
One of the early names for the makeshift settlement was “smoke castles,” notes Norwegian scholar Roger Kvarsvik. This was presumably for the dangerous, and equally makeshift drink made of wood alcohol, sugar and water popular there. The drink when mixed had a smoky look. It had the advantage of being cheap but was sometimes lethal.
The area was christened Ørkenen Sur in 1926. Meaning ‘bitter desert’ or ‘barren wilderness’ in Norwegian, the name was reference to such a land mentioned in the book of Exodus.
It was also called, among other names, Tin Can Hill, Hoover City and simply shanty town. With over 700 people living in Ørkenen Sur the place had, according to Kvarsvik, its own hairdressers, artisans and even its own meeting hall and “mayor.” People survived by bartering, taking odd jobs and through food and charity from the several religious aid organizations.
The end to Ørkenen Sur began in September 1934, when the city began to convert much of the land into a park.
It is estimated that during its existence, between 30-40 Norwegians died there chiefly from tuberculosis, pneumonia and alcohol poisoning. Still despite all its problems, lack of proper sanitation not the least of them, many of the shacks were well made and tended, being made by desperate by proud men.
PortSide NewYork's tanker MARY A. WHALEN was built in 1938, for Ira S. Bushey whose shipyard and fuel terminal abutted Orkenen Sur. Many Norwegians worked for Bushey in those days and into the 1980s. PortSide has an extensive collection associated with one of them, Alf Dyrland, who was captain of the MARY from 1958 to 1978. Norwegian accents were prevalent on workboats in New York harbor into the 1980s.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, the Norwegian community in Red Hook began to move to Sunset Park and Bay Ridge as they either became more successful or were following jobs. David C. Mauk points to transportation as important factor in the change.
Red Hook developed as a “walking city, writes Mauk. Houses were built close to the Atlantic and Erie Basin and people walked to work.
As transportation got cheaper and easier families moved to more strictly residential areas. “First the Irish, Germans and British, then the Scandinavians, and by the 1920s the Italians who could, relocated.
By the early 1920s the large majority of Norwegians lived in the newer housing of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.” In a sure sign of the change, Bethelship Church moved to Sunset Park in 1949.
Gulbransen, Gilbert Kenneth. Images of an Immigrant Life: A Remembrance and an Inmemoriam to a vanishing Immigrant Generation (a memoir in progress).
Mauk, David. 1997. The colony that rose from the sea: Norwegian maritime migration and community in Brooklyn, 1850-1910. [Northfield]: Norwegian-American Historical Association.
Rygg, A. N. (Andrew Nilsen), Norwegians in New York , The Norwegian News Company, Brooklyn NY, 1941. https://archive.org/stream/norwegiansinnewy00rygg/norwegiansinnewy00rygg_djvu.txt (accessed 2016)
Blanck, Maggie. http://maggieblanck.com/BrooklynRedHook/NorwegianRedHook.html (accessed 2016)
"A Look into South Brooklyn's Nowegian Past" http://patch.com/new-york/carrollgardens/a- look-into- south-brooklyns- norwegian-past (accessed 2016)
Nilsen, Lars. Norwegian New York, https://edu.hstry.co/timeline/norwegian-new- york
Norway Heritage http://www.norwayheritage.com (accessed 2016)
The Norwegian Immigration Association, Inc. https://niahistory.org/ (accessed 2016)
Ørkenen sur: http://www.kyst-norge.no/?k=2909&id=22351&aid=12210&daid=3596 (accessed 2016)
Mauk,David C. "Ørkenen sur and other cultural adaptations to economic adversity among Brooklyn Norwegians during the 1930s” in Norwegian-American essays 1996. Edited by Oyvind T. Gulliksen, David C. Mauk, Dina Tolfsby. Oslo : Hamar : NAHA-Norway ; Norwegian Emigrant Museum, 1996.
Orkenen Sur Documentary Video: https://www.nrk.no/video/PS*244112 (accessed 2016)
Special thaks to Lars Nilsen of the The Norwegian Immigration Association for his help.