An Immigrant Story of Tragedy and Triumph
Thomas Olson Helle was the first son of Ola and Marit, who were married in 1801 in Norwary. Ola died at the early age of 48 in 1821, leaving Marit with her three small sons, Thomas, Stephen, and Ole. The lives of the widow and her three children were ones of hardship and struggle, but together they managed to survive on the Helle farm.
Thomas, the eldest son, would, by tradition, inherit the family farm.
In 1846, brothers Stephen and Ole traveled to the Wisconsin territory from Harum, Vang, Valders-Oppland, Norway, and were able to share many details and personal impressions. They found work as carpenters and explored the unsettled lands on densely forested Manitowoc County. The brothers sent letters home to family and friends detailing the opportunities in Wisconsin.
By 1848, Thomas had married and he and his wife, Kari, had 4 children—three sons: Ole, Even, and Thomas, and a daughter, Marit. Life was hard in Vang. The growing season was short and the climate became extremely damp, with excessive precipitation, for several generations. Crops failed and grain was difficult to dry. Despite the fact that they had never left their valley, Thomas and Kari determined to bring their family to America too.
Around Christmas, 1847, Stephen and Ole returned to Norway and the following spring they again made the trip to America, this time bringing with them Thomas and his family, and Ragnild Helle, whom Ole had married. When the party arrived in Port Washington on August 1, 1848, they had been traveling since April. Eventually they moved to Manitowoc County and settled near Valders. Ole and Ragnild built a home near Thomas and Kari.
In 1851 Stephen Olson Helle traveled again to Norway, this time to accompany his fiancée Marit Nilsdatter Fylken-Alfstad, and his mother Marit Steffendatter Brekken-Helle, on their journey to America. In August, 1852, as the three boarded the Atlantic on the last leg of their journey to their new home, Stephen and the women were no doubt looking forward to being reunited with Thomas and Ole, and their families.
After the three had left Vang, completed their voyage westward, and made the trip through the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York, the party booked passage on the ship Atlantic for the trip to Wisconsin. In the early morning hours of August 20, 1852, Lake Erie in the area above Long Point was blanketed in heavy fog and the darkness was extreme. Passenger Erik Thorstad later recalled what happened in a letter he sent from Jefferson County, Wisconsin to his parents and siblings in Oyer, Norway on November 9, 1852:
Since it was already late in the evening and I felt very sleepy, I opened my chest, took off my coat and laid it, together with my money and my watch, in the chest. I took out my bed clothes, made me a bed on the chest and lay down to sleep. But when it was about half past one in the morning I awoke with a heavy shock. Immediately suspecting that another boat had run into ours, I hastened up at once. Since there was great confusion and freight among the passengers, I asked several if our boat had been damaged. But I did not get any reassuring answer. I could not believe that there was any immediate danger, for the engines were still in motion. I went up to the top deck, and then I was convinced at once that the steamer must have been damaged, for many people were lowering about with greatest haste. Many from the lowest deck got into the boat directly, and as the boat had taken in water on being lowered, it sank immediately and all drowned.
Thereupon I went down to the second deck, hoping to find means of rescue. At that very moment the water rushed into the boat and the engines stopped. Then a pitiful cry arose. I and one of my comrades had taken hold of the stairs which led from the second to the third deck, but soon there was so many hands on it that we let go, knowing that we could not thus be saved. We thereupon climbed up to the third deck, where the pilot was at the wheel. I had altogether given up hope of being saved, for the boat began to sink more and more, and the water almost reached up there. While we stood thus, much distressed, we saw several people putting out a small boat, whereupon we at one hastened to help. We succeeded in getting it well out, and I was one of the first to get into the boat. When there were as many as the boat could hold, it was fortunately pushed away from the steamer. As oars were wanting, we rowed with our hands, and several bailed water from the boat with their hats.
A ray of light, which we had seen far away when we were on the wreck and which we had taken for a lighthouse, we soon found to be a steamer hurrying to give us help. We were taken aboard directly, and then those who were on the wreck as well as those who were still paddling in the water were picked up.
This boat, which was the one that had sunk ours, was of the kind known as a propeller, driven by a screw in the stern. The misery and the cries of distress which I witnessed and heard that night are indescribable, and I shall not forget it all as long as I live. The number of drowned were more than 300, of whom sixty-eight were Norwegians. Many of the persons who were in the first class were drowned in their berths or staterooms. The Norwegians who were rescued totaled sixty-four, but most of them lost everything. I saw many on board the propeller who had on only shirts. The newspapers blame the command of the "Atlantic" for this sad event and reproach them most severely and accuse them openly of having murdered three hundred people.
Stephen Olsen Helle, his fiancée Marit Nilsdatter Fylken-Alfstad, and his mother Marit Steffendatter Brekken-Helle, were tossed into Lake Erie and clung desperately onto a piece of floating timber. When it became apparent that all three could not survive, Stephen’s mother decided to sacrifice herself for the new couple. Marit S. Helle, then 71 years, died after 11:00 pm August 20, 1852 in Lake Erie. Marit Helle perished, but her three sons and their families flourished in the New World.
A memorial stands in the city of Buffalo, New York, which commemorates the famous Atlantic-Ogdensburg collision. Visitors can learn more about the Helle family’s immigrant journey at the Helle-Thompson Cabin at the Manitowoc County Historical Society.