The story of the steam ship "Norge" is a tragic one. Many lives were taken, and the criminal case that followed against the captain and the shipping company, was a farce. The shipwreck had a major impact on the Norwegian population, and the newspapers printed poems and obituaries. Below you can read the story of what happened to D/S "Norge".
by Bjørn Davidsen
(Abbreviated translation from the ever increasing internet site about the Norwegian emigration to America, from the home page of The Norwegian Association for the Deafblind)
Already as the Vikings, the people up north demonstrated great skills of ship navigation. The compass facilitated this further, but contrary to today's technology, the compass was at times very unpredictable. And the weather continued to be a predominant factor.
Although the Titanic accident was a huge catastrophe, it was neither the first, nor the last. What we also discover from the large shipwrecks are common denominators, such as the lack of rescue equipment, especially life boats; and bad judgment from the bridge.
There are few islets and rocks between the British Islands and America, but on the "Northern America Route", between the Pentland strait and New York, you find the rock island Rockall. The water surrounding Rockall is not deep, just a 30-60 meters, but circa 3 kilometers east lies St. Helen's reef, just 1,4 meters below the surface.
This is the story of captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel and his Danish ship D/S "Norge" on their journey from Scandinavia to New York with 727 emigrants and 68 crew members on board. One hazy summer morning on the 28 June 1904, the captain, without sight of land, thought he was clear of Rockall and changed course to continue west wards. But he wrecked the ship instead: He hit St. Helen's reef. Twenty minutes later "Norge" was heading towards rock bottom with approximately 620 passengers and crew members.
"Women and children first!" the captain ordered when the life boats were released, but only 143-167 passengers (mostly men) and 24 men of the crew were rescued. Among them were the captain himself.
Based on the statutory declarations, a criminal case was engaged against captain Gundel and the shipping company, De Forende Dampskibsselskaber. The sentence was read on christmas eve 1904: The company as well as captain Gundel were free of charges.
Immediately after the ship had ran aground, the passengers gathered on deck. They were still very confused. The crew ran around panic stricken trying to release the few life boats they had, eight in all.
Suddenly everyone could feel the daunting reality, "Norge" was sinking! While the crew struggled to set the life boats on sea, the passengers were putting on life vests, many of them without success since they had never seen one of these, and there had not been given any instructions. In addition, no one had thought of designing life vests for children... Other passengers were fighting for their life to get into the life boats, making the job even harder for the crew. At the same time the ship was sinking in an increasingly higher speed. Soon the water reached the deck.
The ship was build of iron in 1881 at Alex. Stephen & Son Ltd., in Linthouse, Glasgow. It was an assignment from the Belgian Theordore C. Engels & Co. in Antwerpen. It was constructed as a ship both for passengers and cargo, especially sailing the emigration routes.
There were two decks. The ship weighed 3 359 gross tons, 2 445 (net) tons and 3 700 dead weight tons. The steamer had two cylinders and 1 400 horse powers. She sailed with a speed of 10 knot. She could house as many as 1100 passengers, but were only allowed to take 800.
Her first voyage was 25 June 1881, from Glasgow to New York. She was then called " Pieter de Coninck". The name was changed to "Norge" in 1889 when the ship was sold to A/S Dampskibs-selskabet Thingvalla. After reconstruction the same year, "Norge" was put into the route Stettin-Copenhagen-Kristiania-Kristiansand-New York.
"Norge" left Copenhagen, Denmark, for the last time 22 June 1903. Captain Gundel had sailed the ship since 1901. He was accompanied by 39 seamen, one doctor, and 27 service staff (administration, kitchen, etc.). There were 405 passengers from Copenhagen, of these, 134 were children.
First stop was Kristiania (Oslo), the capital of Norway, the 24. Now 232 passengers embarked, with 70 children. One of the passengers was a student called Herman Theodor Portaas Lauritsen, from Nedre Eiker. He was later known as a renowed poet.
In Kristiansand, the ship was being examined before setting the course for the Atlantic Ocean. The ship was approved according to the Norwegian legislation. There was, however, never held a rescue drill, so no one of the newly employed knew what to do in case of emergency.
During the examination, another 90 passengers signed in, of these 19 were children. The total amount of passengers was now 727, 223 were children under the age of twelve, and of these 23 were just babies, not even one year of age.
Here we encounter the first weird calculations. The rules said that the ship could transport a fixed number of persons, but the various rules defined persons differently. Thus according to Danish rules, there were only 604 passengers on board. Children under one year should not be counted and children under 12 years should only be counted as half a person. In Norway, however, they counted everyone, but there one was a child until one was fourteen, and also here, a child was half a person, thus counting with Norwegian rules, there were only 599 1/2 passengers on board.
Rules aside, there were 727 individuals on board, in addition to the staff of 68. The passengers represented various nations: largely Russians and Fins, Norwegians and Swedes, but also Danes, Germans, English and Americans.
"Norge" left Kristiansand 25 June 1904 with course north west towards the Pentland strait between the Orken Islands and Scotland. Everything went without problems until the captain decided to turn south of Rockall instead of north like everyone else. But he had done it before and there were few problems when the weather was good.
Although the choice should prove fatal, it must be said to his defense that going north of Rockall was also risky. Then you would sail straight into the Gulf Stream and the weathers could be very unpredictable. The captain figured that one could see the rocks if the weather was clear and steer away from them. Before nightfall everything seemed to be in perfect conditions and there was full speed ahead. The captain hoped he could sail pass Rockall so that the passengers were able to see the islet by breakfast time. So he sailed even closer to the rocks than necessary. But he was, however, prepared to change course at the immediate deterioration of the weather, which happened early the next morning.
Although the captain turned drastically south wards, it was not enough! He had not considered the full moon and the tides it causes. In reality the ship was 23 "kvartmil" north of what the captain anticipated.
They had sailed by the compass alone, not double checking the compass with the stars at all. Due to the full moon, the magnetic indicator for the compass had altered. Furthermore, they had not calculated the strong currents at all.
When the captain decided to change course south wards in the morning, the weather was too cloudy and foggy for him to use the stars, he only knew that the course they had selected would take them dangerously close to Rockall. What he did not know, however, was that the currents had drifted the ship north so that it would have gone clear of Rockall on the north side of it.
When the captain felt confident the ship was sailed south wards enough, he set the course west again. Fifteen minutes later they heard the bang. "Norge" was pushing herself up on the St. Helen's reef and had possibly large damages in the hull in front.
According to captain Gundel the ship was not stuck in anything, she moved with the waves. Thus he was not certain that they actually had hit the reef, so he reversed the ship hoping to be able to catch up with a bridge they had passed earlier.
At first everything seemed fine, but then they became aware of the catastrophe. "Norge" took in so much water that the sip was liable to sink any time. Seconds later you heard the order from the bridge: "To the life boats! Women and children first!"
It was one of the seamen on board, Carl Mathiesen who cracked the news about "Norge" first. His life boat was picked up just 24 hours after the accident and had been taken to Grimby in England. Mathiesen was taken to Esbjerg in Denmark 6 July, but before the Danish judge Madvig was able to shut him up, he had given interviews that toured the world. And the story changed from one paper to another.
This is more or less what he said to the newspapers:
"I was lying in bed and awoke when the ship sailed aground. I ran unto the deck just wearing a shirt. I thought we had collided, but I did not for a second think that the ship was sinking. I ran down and got a pair of trousers on. Now I could hear the captain shouting from the bridge that everyone had to get to the life boats.
All the passengers were now on deck. They screamed in all different languages, I did not understand what they were saying, but they were half-naked everyone of them. On deck, the panic had taken everyone, men, women and children were running around from this end of the ship to the other. By the life boats, people were fighting to get on board. The captain ordered: "Push the men aside! Women and children first!" The men fought hard for their lives and got on board since they were the strongest.
I helped release the boats. But first I had to push people away from the boats. When it started to be lowered down, passengers went down with it, while the captain shouted: "Women and children first!". He shouted it again and again, relentlessly. I put two more boats on the water, in the third I let myself into, figuring I could be of help there. I did still not think the "Norge" was going to sink.
Rapidly we got clear of the ship, but then sent towards it again which resulted in a hole in the stern and it took in water. We rowed away. Before I had embarked the boat I saw from the deck one boat go under due to overload, and another that capsized.
The chief officer Gilbe was on the bridge, third mate Otte helped with the boats and was never seen again, and fourth mate Ankersen was in my boat but suddenly, without a word, jumped into the sea leaving his boots so that we could use them as scoops."
The Norwegian poet Herman Wildenvey did also manage to get into Mathiesen's boat. He described the evacuation of "Norge" as follows:
"An indescribable fear and commotion, a wild panic, and a struggle for life ravaged the ship like a storm immediately afterwards. "Through my children up to the deck" a voice cried from the bottom of the ship.
Estermann ran up to the top deck. I followed him. The sight was awful! People stood in front of the pile of life vests, but they were not able to attach any of them, the ropes were rotten.
"To the life boats!" I heard.
Everyone came up to the top deck and started climbing into the seven or eight life boats, but the boats were not ready to be embarked and people were pushed out of them with guns. The order commanding women and children first drowned in the shouting, the gun shots and the panic. I went over to the life vests where people were trying them on, throwing them away, and trying them on and throwing them away again, as an effort to waste time. I soon gave up on the life vests and tried to get into one of the boats. One was lowered down parallel to my deck so I made a jump for it. At the same time I saw it was overloaded and I had to get back on the ship again, but now it was lower than the deck, but I jumped nevertheless. Luckily I was saved by many hands grabbing me and pulling me unto the ship, if not I would have dropped right into the sea.
...Once on deck again I got the creeping notion that I had not a second to loose. I saw the deck leaning upwards, people sliding downwards. A boat still hanging in a hawser had poured all its contents into the wild sea. The steamers distress signal was a black, solemnly background sound for the thousand despaired cries. Shattered boats floated in the waves and people among them.
...I see glimpses of officers with guns, serious faces, silent, they know what will happened. A man in just his shirt comes running towards me with a bundle of paper money. "Are we far from the shore?" he says, his eyes are wild. Then he leaps over board, straight into the ocean.
As I am looking down where the crazy man jumped, I see a boat with just two men on board. I have joined them within seconds, but so have many more. "Lets get the boat away from here, or we're sinking as well" a Danish voice cries.
...As we row away from the ship, passengers are swimming after us. The closest one is able to get hold of the rim and we drag him into the boat. With his leather pants he is difficult to get on board, but finally we made it. Now we must row with all powers left to get out of the reach from the others. One more in the boat and we're doomed. Come on -- row! We row calmly and are shifting on scooping the boat. I am at the bottom and scooping the water into a bucket. A man on the rim empties it. In the pool of water lies a man all crouched and refusing to move. I hit him with the scoop and he looks up at me. A long nose and to terrified eyes. He is one of the Polish Jews.
"Sit up straight, man" I say. He gets up and sits next to a very sea sick couple all clustered together."
This must be the newly wed: Karen and Hilmar from Grong. Some honey moon! Luckily they were survived.
Unfortunately not everyone did.
Mathiesen continues in his interviews:
"A mile ahead we lost sight of "Norge". Our boat took in water by the stern. We were scooping incessantly, but no one of the passengers knew about the leak. They thought the water came from the sea that washed over us.
...We saw three boats, one of them went back to pick up more people. When we had sailed for a while, one of the men said "Now she goes!" I turned my head for å second and watched as she sank.
...We kept the boat towards the sea and drifted with the currents. The corpses floated the same direction and they floated next to our boat with their pale faces for hours. It was a horrible sight."
The only corpse recognized according to the interrogation was the accountant Jensen. He had a very large beard that made him easily distinguishable. It is unknown if he was dead or not when he was spotted in the water, no one could say for certain, and no one bothered checking it out, unknown for what reasons.
Both Mathiesen and Wildenvey talked highly of one courageous woman in the life boat, miss Peterssen from Holte in Denmark. Mathiesen describes her:
"I suppose she was 25 years. She wore a skirt with no underwear, neither stockings or boots, the top was only a thin bodice. She scooped persistently and shouted constantly encouraging words. She had situated herself on one of the most dangerous places in the boat and the sea washed through her again and again."
Of the eight life boats "Norge" disposed of, five were rescued. The three others were not saved because they were either overloaded before even being put on the water, thus the equipment were not strong enough and it broke, sending everyone with the boat down in the sea; or the boat was not correctly loosened from the ship and hasty actions caused it to be put on the sea wrong so it took in water; or it never left "Norge" and went down with it. In the life boats that did make it, there were great sufferance, many people, little provisions, and many days at sea before they were rescued. Several children died.
It was a miracle that the captain was saved since he stayed on the ship while she sank. He floated up to the surface and was taken care of by one of the life boats. He had earlier refused to take place in one of the life boats as he wanted to stay on his ship, like he said in court:
"Just before the ship sank, chief officer Gilbe was on the bridge with me. We bid each other farewell. Gilbe went to starboard of the bridge while I stood on the port side. Then the ship sank. Later I was unable to see chef officer Gilbe."
After the tragedy, the Court of Navigation estimated the accident in facts and numbers. We have used these estimations in combination with our own, and compared them with other sources. On this basis, we can present the following survey of the rescue material, what actually happened and how many were rescued.
On the promenade deck there were:
Boat 1 (1st boat starboard. A lifeboat, 485 cubic feet, designed for 48 persons). It was found Sunday 3 July at 5.30 PM by the German petrol ship "Energie". There were 71 persons on board, 62 passengers (28 children, 8 women and 26 men); and from the ship crew, there were nine persons (1 sailor, 4 stokers, 4 from the restaurant personnel, in addition to the captain and an engineer minder). The persons were brought to Stornoway on the Hybrid Islands. The 29th child, 8 years old Alf Emil Hinderssen, had died and been buried at sea.
Boat 2 (1st boat port. A lifeboat, 485 cubic feet, designed for 48 persons). It was filled with a lot of water while put on the sea. Neither the boat nor the persons on board were seen again.
Boat 3 (2nd boat starboard. A lifeboat, 238 cubic feet, designed for 28 persons). It was found by the British trawler "Salvia" Wednesday 29 June around seven o'clock in the morning. There were 28 persons on board: 27 passengers (20 men, 6 women and one child) and a sailor. These were brought to Grimsby.
Boat 4 (2nd boat port. A lifeboat, 238 cubic feet, designed for 28 persons). The schooner "Olga Pauline" found it Tuesday 5 July. There were 19 persons on board, 11 passengers (10 men and one child) and 8 from the ship crew (second mate, 2 sailors, one boy, 3 stokers and the purser). They were brought to the Faroe Islands.
Boat 5 (3rd boat starboard. A dinghy with transom stern, 268 cubic feet, designed for 27 persons). The Scottish fish boat "Largo Bay" found it early Monday morning 4 July. Seventeen persons were on board, 11 passengers (all males), and 6 from the ship crew (the third mate, 3 sailors, and 2 waiters). They were brought to Aberdeen.
Boat 6 (3rd boat port. A dinghy with transom stern, 272 cubic feet, designed for 27 persons). We are not sure if the boat was ever released from "Norge". We know that some persons had already got onboard the boat, but neither these nor the boat were seen again.
On the aft deck there were:
Boat 7 (4th boat starboard. A double-ended dinghy, 231 cubic feet, designed for 23 persons). It was wrecked as it was put on the sea, due to overload of people.
Boat 8 (4th boat port. A double-ended dinghy, 231 cubic feet, designed for 23 persons). "Cervona" found it Sunday afternoon 3 July, and brought it to Stornoway. There were 35 persons on board, everyone were passengers (26 men, 2 women and 7 children. One of the children, a Russian boy, was dead when the boat was found. He was buried in Stornoway). The Norwegian sailor, Jørgen Hansen, from Larvik became the captain on the boat due to his skills and experience. His contribution has later been remarked upon and appreciated several times.
The life raft (between boat 7 and 8) was designed for 25 persons. It was released from "Norge", but only seen when it ran into a crowd of people at the stern of the superstructure deck. Someone claimed to have seen it later, with people on board, but it was never found.
In addition to these boats, there were the following rescue items on board: 843 lifebelts and 10 lifebuoy, as well as diverse other things (loose benches, boards, etc.) one could use as a lifesaver approved by the inspectors in Kristiansand.
Studying the passenger list, it seems like we have representatives from all of Norway. Every county in Norway was present on the list.
There were a lot of family tragedies among the Norwegian passengers. In some cases, complete families drowned, in other cases; they were all, or nearly all, rescued. It is beyond the scope of this essay to reflect upon every family destiny, this will be available in the book by Per Kristian Sebak. He is currently writing about the accident of D/S "Norge". However, we can include some examples:
Inga Marie Jørgensen, 41 years old, from Vestre Aker, was on her way to join her husband in Wisconsin with her five children. She and her three eldest children survived, but the two youngest died in Stornoway.
Eline Sofie Vik, 37 years old, from Hadsel in Vesterålen, was also going to join her husband in Wisconsin accompanied by her six children. All seven died.
The fisherman, Jens Johansen Svartfjeld, 51 years old, from Gibostad in Lenvik in Troms, was on his way to Minnesota with his wife and five children. Tragically, only Jens survived as he separated himself from the family to locate a lifeboat. When he returned to get his family, they were lost in the crowd and went down with the ship.
The typographer, Karl Fredrik Olaus Englund, 43 years, from Kristiania, was on his way to North Dakota with his wife and four children. They all died.
The worker, Karl Anton Mathiasen Aanerudhagen, 31 years, from Vestre Gausdal, was luckier. He, his wife, and children all survived.
Kathrine Gustavsen Bramstedt, 34 years, from Kragerø, died unfortunately with her five children. Her husband waiting in Minnesota never saw his family again.
Neither did Mr Bergemoen in North Dakota. His wife Johanne, 33 years old, from Sør-Fron, and their five children, all died in the accident.
Isodora Hansen, 35 years, from Fredrikstad, was on her way to her husband in New York. She and her children were rescued, but her youngest daughter, Andrea Margrethe, 4 years old, died in Stornoway.
The family Hinderssen (he was from Finland, she from Kristiania) were also rescued. However, the two eldest children died after the rescue. Only the youngest girl could travel from Stornoway with her parents.
Torbjørg Korneliussen, 45 years old from Langesund, was travelling to her husband in Wisconsin. She died together with her five children.
The same did the Steen's from Jevnaker - both the worker Bernt Magnus (42 years), his wife Mathilde (40 years), and their six children.
This also happened with the worker-family Kristiansen from Ådalen. Andreas (47 years), his wife Thea (42), and their six children all died at sea.
Oline Pedersen, 34 years old from Vestre Aker, was to see her husband in USA, but she and her four children died on their way to Chicago.
Nor did the cottar Erik Olsen, 58 years old, from Sør-Aurdal, make it. He, his wife, and their son were all lost at sea.
Ole Kristian Eid, from Blaker in Aurskog, was saved, however, with his two years old daughter. His wife and son, however, disappeared.
The Støyl's from Nissedal in Telemark, also vanished in the sea: Olaf Knudsen, 57 years old, and his wife Anna (45), together with their six children.
Sigrid Aanonsdotter, 43 years old, from Rysstad in Setesdal, and her six children were lost at sea as well. They were going to join the family father in America, but he never got to see them again.
The carrier, Christian Hansen, 43 years old, from Larvik, had got a job on a barge in New York. His wife, Anna Cathrine, 37 years, and two children accompanied him. Unfortunately, none of them reached New York.
The mine owner, Jonas Anda (45 years), had had prosperous times in Pennsylvania. He took his whole family to visit relatives in Norway, Klepp at Jæren. However, none of the six family members survived the journey back to USA.
Little Inga Solberg, 5 years old, lived in Wisconsin with her family. She had visited relatives in Masfjorden, north of Bergen. Her aunt accompanied her back to USA, but they both died in the shipwreck.
Mikkel Pedersen Tømmerstøl (58), from Davik in Nordfjord also died, as well as his wife, Anna (61), and their two children.
The last family we include in this survey is the Koch-family. Dagny Kristensen Koch, her 3 children, and her father. Dagny was born in Bergen and married to a German tram-worker. He, however, had already travelled to Brooklyn and waited for his family to join him. His family never joined him, though, they were lost at sea together with 220 other Norwegian passengers and crew of D/S "Norge". There were only 65 of 290 Norwegian passengers that survived.
To better illustrate the sufferance of the people in the rescue boats, we have made a list of how long they remained in the boats before they were found.
Boat 3 was found Wednesday 29 June about 7 o'clock in the morning (24 hours after the shipwreck) with 28 persons on board.
Boat 1 was found Sunday 3 July, 5.30 PM (approximately 5 nights after the shipwreck) with 71 persons on board.
Boat 8 was found Sunday 3 July, in the afternoon (approximately 5 nights after the shipwreck) with 35 persons on board.
Boat 5 was found early morning, 4 July (6 nights after the shipwreck) with 17 persons onboard.
Boat 4 was found Tuesday 5 July (a week after the shipwreck) with 19 persons on board.
Most of the persons were thinly dressed and soaking wet. In addition, food and/or water were missing from some of the boats. Fortunately, some boats stayed close to each other so that they could share what little they had, if not, the number of deaths would have been much higher. Still, the portions of food and water were very small, hence, the condition of the survivors were bad once they were found. It is much thanks to the crew on the lifeboats, as well as, some of the survivors, that so many were saved.
As soon as the rescued were brought to shore, the passengers were shipped to where they wanted to go. Most of them actually chose their destination goal in USA, some, however, returned to Norway and never sailed the ocean again.
The crew on "Norge" was shipped to Denmark for questioning by the Court of Navigation. The evening of 7 July, when the sailor Carl Mathiesen arrived in Copenhagen, J.N.A Madvig as president of the court immediately ordered a closed hearing. He held the hearing alone and did not bother to call upon the court's experts, admiral Bruun and captain Torm. They were first present at the second hearing, 10 July.
Since Mathiesen was questioned behind closed doors, Madvig decided that the rest of the questionings should also be closed as well. This way, the press was excluded and could not report from the court. The press corps had to rely on the extracts of the protocols that Madvig had made.
Madvig, therefore, had the hearings, and later, the process, in the hollow of his hand. He obviously wanted to restrict the public's knowledge of the case, thus prevent a scandal and protect "DFDS".
Norway sent several "tricky" questions, formulated by the head of the Norwegian Directorate of Shipping and Navigation, Magnus Andersen. Judge Madvig, however, gave these questions to the shipping company encouraging them to formulate and write down appropriate answers, but in a way that would not reveal they knew about the questions beforehand. Was the judge corrupt?
The hearings were sent to the Justice Department who forwarded them to the prosecuting authorities. The authorities prosecuted both captain Gundel and "DFDS", but no one could fight against judge Madvig's stubbornness. He ruled a verdict that was more of a defence than the counsel for the defence could have managed. Since he was the judge of the Court of Navigation, no civil court dared to go against the acquittal of the captain and the shipping company, Christmas Eve 1904. The captain was the only one who was slightly punished. He had to pay his own court expenses, 600 kroner. Lucky for him, his uncle was former head of department and chancellor in "DFDS", so the company probably covered for his expenses as well.
After having studied this case for several years, read what is to be read, and talked to divers experts, the cause for the shipwreck seem to be a simple one: useless ship crew and lots of bad luck:
Considering the extent of the accident with 653 deaths, the shipping company and the "free market" must take its share of the blame:
The captain, Valdemar Johannes Gundel, was immediately taken off sailing engagements. He was "promoted" to head of "DFDS" in Copenhagen. He stayed there until he retired in 1925; he died six years later.
The director, Jacob Brandt, was fired from "DFDS" already in 1905.
The judge, J.N.A. Madvig, tried forcing the government to restructure the Court of Navigation. To put pressure on the decision, he resigned from his position. However, the government did not follow his suggestion, but accepted his resignation. He "retired" 72 years old.
It is nearly a hundred years since judge Madvig acquitted captain Gundel and "DFDS". Still, we, the readers, cannot help but associate this history with recent events. Some captains continue to sail their ship aground, and the courts continue to free shipping companies from their responsibilities…
Did one not learn from the tragic accident in 1904? Not apparently, "Titanic" sank just 8 years later. Captain Gundel's errors have been repeated to the inexplicable. And the shipping companies? They still seem to consider the investors' interests more important than the safety of the passengers…
However, there is one person who should be put in a more positive light: head of the Norwegian Directorate of Shipping and Navigation, Magnus Andersen. He fought against very powerful organisations and experienced both loss and gain. He saw the establishment of The Norwegian America Line, but lost his position in the Directorate while fighting for the comfort and security of the passengers.