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Bill Coates

Last Christmas, our daughter Sarah visited from Massachusetts.

I brought out a box of old family photos. Some family documents and old news clippings. A bit of family history.

She wasn’t too keen on the Coates side of things. Follow it back to my great-great-grandfather, Nathan Coates, and you get a Georgia slaveholder. Nothing to see here.

Sarah found more to like on my mother’s side. It’s a side that speaks to immigrants who came to our shores by the boatload, for real, in the 19th century.

In our case, it was Norwegians.

Severt Olsen and Christina Johnson were among 800,000 Norwegians to enter America between 1825 and 1925. Or so I read. Name spellings often changed from old world to new. “Johnson” is likely an anglicized version of Johansen. Severt was listed as “Sivert Oleson” on his naturalization papers.

They came to America for a better life. A cliché, but probably true. Sarah told me that Norway in the 1800s had a program to unburden itself of its poor, huddled masses. The government paid them to leave.

So here came the Norwegians.

Severt and Christina likely spoke no English. That’d be a point against them nowadays.

They’d be told to turn around and go back.

Instead, they settled in Wisconsin, where they first met. Much of what I know comes from a magazine submission by Bill Olsen, my great-uncle. We knew him as Uncle Bill.

Sarah spotted the piece among the papers spread out on the dining room table. It was the original 1955 typewritten manuscript, three pages. It was passed down from my mother. Maybe my older sister gave it to me. I didn’t read it. Not right away. Instead, I scanned it into the computer, slipped it into in a manila folder and filed it away. Somewhere.

Sarah pulled it from the pile. She took a seat and began reading. It was a tale of adventure. Men in the wilderness, searching for Alaska gold.

I read it myself, eventually. I know. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

The submission is addressed to “Editor of B.L.E. Magazine.” B.L.E., it happens, stands for Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Uncle Bill was a longstanding member. He hired on as a fireman with Southern Pacific Railroad in 1897. Southern Pacific was later taken in by Union Pacific.

He shoveled coal to power-steam locomotives. Five years later, he was promoted to engineer. For the next 40 years, he hauled freight and passenger trains across southern Arizona.

I don’t know if the magazine published his story. It touches on his life before the railroads. He starts from the beginning. He was born in 1874 in Merridian, Wisconsin. That’s his spelling. Perhaps he meant Meridian.

Soon after, the family moved west to Union City, Washington. Severt went into the logging business. Christina gave birth to Clara, my grandmother. I never knew her. She died well before I was born.

The logging business was hard on Severt.

“Father lost his health,” Uncle Bill wrote.

The family moved again, to the Wilmington area of Los Angeles. Severt worked as a shipbuilder. Christina gave birth to a daughter, named, well, Christina.

I don’t think they called her junior. We knew her as Auntie. She would later move to Phoenix. She adopted my mother, Virginia. She was just 7 years old when Clara died.

Uncle Bill learned shipbuilding from his father. He later moved to Tucson and worked for the Tucson Bridge and Building Department, as he puts it. He was 17. Still plenty of time for adventure.

Three years later, he booked passage on a steamer with a friend. His name was Morgan Wilson. It was 1895, early days of the Klondike gold rush. The ship set a course for an inlet near the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Forty men were on board

“We were in a couple of bad storms and nearly shipwrecked,” Uncle Bill wrote. “Just escaped being blown into an active volcano island.”

And perhaps being blown out again, only with lava.

They landed across the inlet from Kenai Peninsula. He spelled it Kenia, but I’m sure he meant Kenai. It was a 20-mile crossing. It was part of the plan. The ship came with materials to build a boat for the crossing.

Uncle Bill knew how to build boats. He pitched in. A few days later they crossed the inlet. They made their way to Fort Kenai, a village comprised of Eskimos, American Indians and Russian exiles. Not far from Anchorage.

“Nice people,” Uncle Bill wrote.

They ended up on the Kenai River and traveled by barge. At one point, the river iced up. They dragged the barge onto an ice floe and rode it part way. When the ice cleared, they camped and prospected. They didn’t get rich. They did nearly get buried in an avalanche. They got riddled by mosquitoes.

Otherwise, Uncle Bill wrote, “all we got was a wealth of experience.”

They ate well, he said. Fresh salmon and all manner of game. Porcupine, he added, “was better than any chicken.”

They headed back down the river by boat. They went through rapids, whirlpools and waterfalls.

“It was dangerous fun,” Uncle Bill wrote. “Several men lost their lives because of no experience in boat handling.

“I was an expert with a boat because I was practically raised at boating.”

He made his way to Seattle. He was broke and took a job at the docks. The boss bawled him out. Not worth it, he decided. He quit after three hours. He made 15 cents, 10 of which bought him lunch.

He borrowed some money and made his way back to Tucson.

He married. Years later, he became widowed and moved in with Auntie. I remember him as a big, rounded man. His shirt had holes where his cigar ashes fell. Still glowing. He was an easygoing sort.

I didn’t know it at the time. He was heir to the American dream. All those Norwegians ago.


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