In the footsteps of early immigrants

Emotions ran high when Dagfinn Silgjerd found his grandfather's old home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Berit Hessen

Emotions ran high when Dagfinn Silgjerd found his grandfather's old home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Berit Hessen

A tour through Brooklyn remembers the past

By Berit Hessen
Norwegian American Weekly

On Oct. 9, 1825 Cleng Peerson (the father of the Norwegian Immigration to America) who hailed from Tysvær, greeted 52 Norwegians when they arrived in New York on the sloop Restauration. Almost two centuries later, 18 members of Tysvær Historical Society together with Knut Djupedal, Director at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Hamar, visited America to walk in their footsteps. Half of the sloopers, most of them Quakers, came from Tysvær on the west coast of Norway.

I had the opportunity to take a tour through Brooklyn with the group on Sept.12. This special excursion was guided by historian Lars Nilsen of the Norwegian Immigration Association (NIA), who knows the Norwegian history in New York better than anyone.

We started our tour on the corner of Market Street and Pike Slip in lower Manhattan. This area by the East River was the initial center for the immigrants activity from 1840 to the late 1800s. Here the Norwegian Churches also started their efforts.

“This was the location of Stavanger-Larsen’s sailor residence,” Lars Nilsen pointed out before we jumped on the train to South Brooklyn.


Next stop: Carroll Gardens

It’s common knowledge that Bay Ridge, in the southwest corner of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, became the social hub for the Norwegian immigrants after World War II. But the fact that many Norwegians settled in Carroll Gardens before World War I, is far from well-known. Evidence of that is a street running through it called Bergen Street. Even if most traces of the Norwegian immigrants have been erased, a few signs are still intact. Such as the name “Frelsesarmeen” carved on the wall of Eileen Dugan Senior Center, which once was the Norwegian Salvation Army Center. During our journey we visited Carroll Park and took a closer look at the soldiers and sailors monument of those from the area, who fell during World War I, we were surprised to see numerous Norwegian names listed on the monument.

Many of the visitors had brought with them addresses scribbled on pieces of paper, in hope of finding the homes where their family members had once lived. We excitedly explored the peaceful neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, when we suddenly found 303 Carroll Street. This was an emotional moment for Dagfinn Silgjerd, who could finally take a glance at the house his grandfather lived in for many years. Dagfinn’s grandfather died in a tragic accident, before he was able to bring his family to America.

On the corner of Clinton Street and First Place, we found the old Norwegian Seamen’s Church. This former house of worship was converted into apartments after the church moved to Manhattan. Not far from the old culture center we admired the beautiful Hans S. Christian Memorial.

“This house was built in memory of a successful Norwegian immigrant, who died in 1896. He owned a building supply company on the Gowanus Canal and second street,” explained our knowledgeable guide.

Red Hook and Bay Ridge
“As the shipping industry moved from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, the Norwegian center moved to Hamilton Avenue in Red Hook until the 1920s, before it gradually moved to 4th and 5th Street in Bay Ridge,” said Nilsen.

During its height, the Norwegian community consisted of more than 60,000 individuals, he explained.
In a bohemian neighborhood on Pioneer Street in Red Hook, we found the first Norwegian Seamen’s Church. In 1878 the Seamen’s Mission in Bergen sent Ole Bugge Asperheim to establish a church in New York. This church was an active Norwegian stronghold for 50 years, before it moved to Clinton Street.

After a lot of walking, we took a well-deserved break at Fairway Market, beautifully located right on the water. We enjoyed a magnificent view of the Statue of Liberty while eating tasty sandwiches at the outdoor cafe.

Laughing and having a great time, we climbed onto a bus that took us to the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center, located near Bay Ridge. Here we explored NIA’s wonderful exhibit: “Norwegians on the Waters around New York.” This is a salute to the many Norwegians who played a dynamic part in the building of our modern New York.

Many of the first Norwegian immigrants, and those who followed them, moved out of crowded areas to the “freer West,” so did the 18 members of the Tysvær Historical Society. After two days in New York they continued their journey through six states, from New York to Chicago.

This unique heritage tour was arranged in collaboration between Brekke Tours in North Dakota and the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Hamar. Knut Djupedal is currently planning another trip for 2010, which will follow the Norwegian footprints from the Midwest to Seattle.

This article originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly in the Nov. 6 issue. For more information, call us toll-free at (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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