Iowan's 1907 Lusitania Diary

Mar 2, 2015

A newly-translated diary describes a Danish emigrant's journey to America 108 years ago. He came aboard the doomed ocean liner Lusitania when it was brand new. IPR's Rick Fredericksen tells his grandfather's story in the centennial year of the historic sinking of the Lusitania.

Just like today’s emigrants, Europeans came to America long ago in search of a better life. Ellis Island remains an iconic symbol and a favorite landmark for documentarians.

“Tens of millions of us have relatives who came this way, part of the largest human migration in history.”

Many were economic refugees from places where farmland was scarce, according to Michele McNabb, manager of the genealogy center at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn.

Michele McNabb in the Genealogy Center of the Museum of Danish America, in Elk Horn
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“There’s only a finite land mass in Denmark and families were fairly large so many younger children either had to go into the cities to find work or they had to emigrate.”

As a teenager in North Jutland, Kristian Fredericksen was a farmhand, but found a career in photography just as picture post cards became immensely popular. By 1907, he was ready to join the exodus to America, where his fiancé was waiting in Chicago.

“It gives significance to the diary that in fact your grandfather came on the Lusitania and that the Lusitania later would go down in history so to speak, pun intended, I guess you could say.”

John Mark Nielsen stands over the Museum of Danish America
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

John Mark Nielsen is Director of the Danish Museum, and helped my family translate the 27 page account of sea sickness, antipathy, joy, and hope, during the trans-Atlantic journey on the Lusitania, 108 years ago. Chris died young; I never met him, so this is as close as I’ve ever come to hearing him speak.

“It looks very wild across the ocean. Sea sickness has started with vomiting everywhere. The Lusitania is the world’s largest emigrant ship and it is like a ball that is being tossed around willy-nilly.”

“There is much confusion, with noise all around. All of the ones I can understand are using bad and immoral language. Many are getting into relationships, making out, so that is disgusting. It looks like the worst kinds of people are traveling to America.”

Chris entertained fellow passengers on the Lusitania
Credit Chris Fredericksen / Family archives

“That confirms other immigrants, I mean they were just kind of taken aback with American use of language and swearing and that sort of thing, they had not been exposed to that.”  

“I think travel diaries are extremely enlightening and valuable to have.”

Michele McNabb says they have several dozen diaries at the genealogical center—but none from the Lusitania.

“Here you have a person perched on the edge of a new adventure and they’re going into the unknown.”

Chris is traveling with his younger sister and men gather around her: “It’s good that she has me to take care of things,” he writes. The food is good, the accommodations clean; there is singing and dancing on board; he played violin. After eight days on the ocean, he portrayed the train trip from New York to Chicago as “boring,” how everything appeared “primitive.” His mood improved at the end of the line.

“At six o’clock in the evening we could see the lights of the city. I must express my feeling, as my heart is jumping for joy. With Chicago in front of me, I was thankful to God that everything had gone well.”

The 27 page diary of Chris’s 1907 voyage on the Lusitania
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Life would get even better. He married, had a family and joined the Danish settlements in western Iowa. Then, a month after the Titanic went down, Chris died of diabetes.  

Three years later, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat sank, killing nearly 1,200 passengers and moving the U.S. a step closer to World War One.

Iowa’s Scandinavian immigrant story has matured. Earlier this month in Elk Horn, famous for its Danish windmill, the village lost its last resident who was born in Denmark. 93-year old Egon Simonsen arrived by steamship in 1927.

People still speak Danish in Elk Horn, but the Danish museum’s John Mark Nielsen says more than ever, they are tourists.

“Today, the Danes tend to view themselves as citizens in a global community, so there are probably fewer than a hundred Danes emigrating to the United States but we have far more than that coming to Elk Horn to visit.”

Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

The Lusitania memoir will become a national story in a publication of the Museum of Danish America, where the diary will be preserved, only a few miles from Harlan, where Chris Fredericksen is buried. In Elk Horn, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.