A Story of the Hiltunen Family's Move to America
Finnish Heritage Museum President, Lasse Hiltunen, presented an attention-grabbing program at the monthly meeting of the Museum on Monday, October 10, 2016. The program was called “Crossing the Pond,” and took all in attendance on a journey from Finland to the United States.
The year 1949 was a turbulent time in Finland. The country was still recovering from the Winter War, which had taken place in 1939-1940; the Continuation War, 1942-1944; and the Lapland War, 1944-1945. At the end of all this fighting, the country had to cede 10% of its land to the Soviet Union, which increased the constant fear of this super power.
America looked like a safe place to live and maybe even prosper. As a result, there was a mass migration to the U.S. of Finns, Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians which took place from 1945 to 1960. Most of these people were trying to avoid the “Iron Fist” of the Soviet Union.
There were also other reasons people had for leaving their native country. Perhaps first among them was simply making a living. Finland observed the custom of primogeniture, where the first born son inherits the land from his father, leaving the other sons, if any, on their own in trying to figure out how to survive. Finland also followed the rule of conscription for males; and there was quite an exacting political atmosphere in place, including underground forces.
The Hiltunen family decided to make the trek to America in order to make a better living for the growing family. In 1949, the family consisted of father Uuno Hiltunen, mother Aini, 12-year-old Helena, and Lasse, who was three years and nine months old. Youngest sister Jane was born a few years later, in the U.S.
Up to this time, the family had lived in Helsinki, first on Malminkatu and then at #10 Esianpuistotie. The latter building is now the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki.
It should be noted that Mr. Hiltunen worked for the American Legation, which made it a bit easier to travel.
The Finland Steamship Co. (SHO) arranged the trip to America. The Hiltunens were part of those who sailed from Helsinki Harbor; although many people left from the port of Hanko, a naval base 70 miles east/southeast of Helsinki. For those leaving from Hanko, the final glimpse of Finland was the “eye of Hanko,” the lighthouse.
From Helsinki’s South Harbor, our intrepid family traveled aboard the ship the SS Wellamo to Hull, England. This first leg of the trip took four days. The ship would dock close to the train sheds at Hull, at Paragon Station. There was a two-day layover, then the family went by train to Liverpool.
Curiously, each of the “emigration” cars on the train was sealed for security purposes after the passengers boarded, so no one could get in or out.
In Liverpool, the Hiltunens boarded the ship Franconia of the Cunard White Star line. This was the ship that would take them “across the pond.”
The passenger list of the Franconia listed the family as follows: father Mr. V. (should have been U.) Hiltunen, Mrs. Hiltunen, Miss H. (Helena) Hiltunen, and Miss L. Hiltunen. This last passenger entry was our presenter and museum president Lasse, and should have been Mr. L. Hiltunen.
It is interesting to note that the Hiltunens, like other emigrants, carried all their worldly possessions in one sea trunk, which was approximately three feet wide, two feet deep, and one and a half feet from front to back. We have an example of a sea trunk at FHM, and it is hard to imagine that all a family was packed into such a small space (approximately 4 cubic feet).
The voyage from Liverpool across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec, Canada, took eight days, a journey of 3,019½ miles. The family arrived in Quebec on July 29, 1949, but their long journey wasn’t over. There was yet another train that would take them to Montreal, then on to Buffalo, New York, a two day trip.
Upon entering the US, each person was issued a card showing his or her name, where they had come from, where they were going, the name of the patron who sponsored them, and almost everything else anyone needed to know about them.
A few years ago, Lasse had been lucky enough to find his mother’s “Entering the United States,” card, and it is a very comprehensive document. The train terminal in Buffalo was, in 1949, a beautiful art deco themed terminal. Today, although it is in major disrepair, restoration has been started.
From Buffalo, the family traveled by train to New York City, a two day trip. There, they moved into an apartment at East 125th Street, East Harlem. They lived in that apartment for only 30 days before once again boarding a train for another two days. This time they were bound for Painesville, Ohio, where they were picked up by a car and brought to Fairport Harbor, Ohio.
Once in town, they lived with relatives at 27 Paradise Apartments, nine people in a two bedroom apartment.
Eventually Uuno Hiltunen was able to build, with his own hands, a home on East Street in town, where daughter Jane still lives.
After this everyone’s questions to Lasse were asked and answered, the gathering broke for refreshments, which were provided by Bev Harbour, Elaine Kangas, Amy Moyer, Virpi Buck, Carol Vrabel, and Shirley Northcutt.
At 7:45 pm, Museum President Lasse Hiltunen called the business meeting to order. For more information about the Finnish Heritage Museum and Fairport Harbor, Ohio, please see our web site: www.finnishheritagemuseum.org. Of particular interest may be the story of the new Hungarian Monument just erected in the village park – another group of fellow immigrants honoring their heritage.
Text © Sharon Mackey, Photos © Bill Lukshaw 2016, Graphix© Lasse Hiltunen 2016