A West End Story

Saga beginning in Sweden ends tragically for one family

Originally published July 2014
Anna and Charles Carlson circa 1910–11 with the first four of their six daughters, including Ruth, standing behind her mother. (Image: Jim Heffernan)

This West End story begins in Sweden, the homeland of one set of my grandparents, and a sad story it is.

I visited Sweden in June and found myself recalling what I’d been told of the fate of these two young Swedes who sought a better life in America—and in Duluth—more than a century ago

While Charles Carlson and Anna Joranson both were born in Sweden, they didn’t meet there. Each emigrated to Duluth in the 1890s, when so many Scandinavians arrived here. Duluth’s West End had already drawn relatives of both, so that was the destination. Anna was about 16 when she arrived, I was told, and Charles about nine years older.

They were my mother’s parents, but I never met them. Both had died two decades before I was born. All that I know about this young immigrant couple was told to me by my mother.

Anna went to work as a domestic in Duluth’s East End before meeting Charles. The couple met through Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End, the neighborhood and church where so many Swedish immigrants congregated.

That church as an institution still exists at 23rd Avenue West and Third Street, long since shedding its early Swedish associations, but my grandparents met and were married in an earlier edifice of the congregation at 20th Avenue West and Third, a building since replaced by a multi-family dwelling. Anna was in her late teens when the couple wed, and their first daughter, my mother, Ruth, was born in 1899 when Anna was 20 years old.

I’ve never been clear about Charles’ work history. At times he was a grocery clerk, and he had worked on the Duluth street railway system. For about three years when my mother was a young child, they moved to Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to operate a rented farm, but returned to the West End. Another daughter had been born in Ellsworth, and Anna wanted her daughters to be city dwellers, not farm dwellers, according to what I was told.

Back in the West End, they settled in the neighborhood just east of Piedmont Avenue known as Goat Hill, where the terrain is exceptionally steep. Soon the family grew even larger, with another daughter, and another, and eventually two more daughters—bringing the total to six girls and no boys—all born between 1899 and 1913.

But far too soon after the birth of her youngest daughter, Anna became ill, probably with cancer. She died at home in 1917 at the age of 38, leaving her grieving husband and six young daughters. My mother had just turned 18 years old, her next sister about 15 and so on down the line.

I was told that when she died, Anna’s casket was placed in their home for the period of mourning and reviewal leading up to a funeral at Bethany church, by then located in the building it occupies today. Following the service came the long uphill trek to Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown behind a horse-drawn hearse.

These events occurred during the dark years of World War I, a difficult time nationally but strangely beneficial in one way to the Carlsons. My mother was an accomplished pianist and organist (innately talented, she had managed to study with professionals in Duluth), and when the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called up for military service, she, just in her late teens, took over as the congregation’s organist, a paid position. When the regular organist died on a battlefield in France, Ruth became the regular organist and director of choirs. She stayed in that position for 57 years.

I have written before about the Carlson family’s experience in the great 1918 fire that struck just a few months after Anna’s death. The devastating October fire, extending from Moose Lake and Cloquet through the rural areas surrounding Duluth and into Duluth’s eastern neighborhoods, also threatened the West End including the Carlson home just off Piedmont Avenue at about Fourth Street. While her younger sisters slept, Ruth and her father kept a vigil all night as they watched flaming refuse from the fire sweep past their home, driven by the strong winds fueling the conflagration atop the hill that eventually claimed nearly 500 lives and left thousands homeless.

An early morning shift in the wind saved the West End and the Carlson home. Plans had been made for the family to be taken the short distance down to the bay if the fire had directly threatened the family. Charles, working for a grocery store at the time, had been asked to take the business’ truck to help evacuate people in the path of the fire, but he couldn’t leave his six young daughters.

But he soon did leave them. Within a year, Charles was dead. He was just 47 years old, his daughters, all under 20, left to fend for themselves. The cause of death also was believed to be cancer, and not the rampant Spanish flu pandemic threatening lives in Duluth and throughout much of the world in those hard times.

A noteworthy transformation in conducting funerals had occurred in the two years since Anna’s death: The funeral procession for Charles was led by a motor-driven hearse, horses having only recently been abandoned for that purpose.

He too was taken to Bethany Cemetery just inside Hermantown—in the heart of where the fire had swept a short time earlier—to be buried alongside his wife.

That’s what I know about the lives of these grandparents, who left Sweden at young ages to play out their relatively short lives in a distant land in a small frame home on a steep hillside in Duluth’s West End.

Last month, visiting Sweden, I couldn’t help but reflect that I had come to the land where it all had started. Charles and Anna never saw their homeland again, nor did any of their daughters ever visit Sweden, although the older girls understood and spoke the Swedish language, having been reared by Swedish-speaking parents. Even their church services were conducted in Swedish in those days.

There’s a lot more to this West End story—how the lives of the six orphaned Carlson daughters played out without parents to nurture and guide them. Inevitably, as the decades passed, they all eventually joined their parents at Bethany Cemetery, one by one, with Ruth, the first born but last to die, laid to rest there in the 1980s.

Maybe I’ll tell the rest of that West End story—how they struggled to keep the family together—another time.

Finally, it must be noted that there are many such stories from those difficult days in Duluth, as a largely immigrant population struggled to gain a foothold in their new land. This is just the one I know best.


Jim Heffernan writes about growing up in Duluth’s western environs each month on Zenith City Online. You can catch up on past installments here.

Saga beginning in Sweden ends tragically for one family

25 Responses to A West End Story

  1. Hi Char, The Bethany Cemetery Board oversees the cemetery. If you would like to find out about where your grandfather’s stone is located, you could write to Dennis Velander and Kim Healy, long time board members. Here is Dennis’ e-mail: i2luv2sing@yahoo.com and here is Kim’s e-mail: kim58@chartermi.net
    Best wishes and thanks for writing!

  2. My grandfather Ernest Conrad Swenson, his first wife Esther, his second wife Betty, and my mother Martha, are buried at Bethany, and I did see my father’s half brother’s stone. Sigward Swenson. My father showed me 6 years ago where his father’s stone was, but, when I took my daughter there to show her where it was, I could not remember where dad had shown me. I wonder where I can get a map of where the plots are.

  3. Ron LeDoux — Very interesting research on your part tracking your Duluth ancestors. There were a lot of Swedes in the West End with overlapping names. My mother was a Carlson too. Knowing what I know about her early years, I don’t think it’s likely your ancestors and mine were related. I am aware of the sharp division between Covenant Swedes and Lutheran. My mother’s family were of the Lutheran branch, being very early members of Bethany. My grandparents came to the U.S. and Duluth about the time your great grandparents did — 1890s. My Swedish grandparents met in Duluth, both having been born in Sweden. Incidentally, I have known a few West End LeDouxs. Went all through school — K-12 — with Sandra LeDoux. I believe she had a younger brother, Mike. They lived on Fourth Street between 23rd and 24th avenues West. I always appreciate hearing from people who stumble on things I’ve written. — Jim

  4. Jim – I forgot to mention that my grandmother and her parents Jennie and Ben T Gustafson are buried at the Union Cemetery just into Hermantown. There are many many Swedish people buried there.

  5. Great story Mr. Heffernan. I use Ancestry.com a lot and I am an avid ancestry hunter – over 5,500 names so far. I am having trouble tracing my great grandparents Jennie (maiden name Carlson) and Ben T Gustafson. They once owned a store where the West End US Post Office stands today, it was called Gustafsons Bros. Grorcery. Jennie and Ben T came separately to America around 1889 – 1890. They got married in St Louis County. Jennie’s sister Augusta married Axel Peterson – had 4 girls – Lilly / Signe / Niomy and Melba and lived at 2129 W 6th St. I was wondering if they may be related to your family. They went to First Covenant Church on 21st Ave W. and 2nd St. I have all I need about them in Duluth but cannot trace them back to Sweden.

  6. vgs1895: Thanks. I love those old photos and my mother would feel so complimented by your kind words! I linked part 2 on my blog and used a photo of Ruth taken in the 1920’s. Both my wife and I agree, that particular photo makes her look like a movie star. Check it out on my blog: http://www.jimheffernan.org There are so many interesting stories of that era and this one is very personal. Thanks for reading!

  7. I absolutely LOVE your story. Thank you for sharing it. I didn’t get around to reading it until now and I’m so glad I did! (Now to part 2!)

    By the way, your grandmother was uncommonly beautiful. She could be a model by today’s standards (well, prettier than today’s standards!). I’m just taken aback by how gorgeous she is (they’d probably have called her “handsome” back then). What a wonderful family they were. How sad that they died so young.

    Such a fascinating history!

  8. Bethany MUST have been where my great grandfather is/was buried as my grandmother talked about how long and cold it was in the horse drawn carriage going up the hill. We never really never what cemetery. Thanks!!

  9. James: I saw this (below) on a St. Louis Co, MN Cemetery Index. Perhaps this person may help you as well.
    Scandia Cemetery
    32 Ave E. & London Rd
    Duluth, MN
    -Records available:
    Scandia Cemetery
    c/o John Bredeson
    118 Artavia St.
    Duluth, MN 55811
    -burials 1881-1984?

  10. James, I think your best bet is to check with the twin ports genealogical society. The duluth public library reference department should be able to connect you to them.

  11. Really interesting story, Jim. So sad that your mom and her sisters lost their parents at such a young age. Those years were difficult with the 1918 fire, WWI, and the influenza all at the same period of time. The fire of 1918 hit Jerry’s family very hard. They lost their house and all of their belongings. We have the detailed list of their losses because they filed with the U.S. government for recompense. Luckily they survived by taking the train from Saginaw to Duluth. Our immigrant grandparents and great grandparents were much more courageous than I am.

  12. To Lonn Rickstrom: I only know of two Lutheran cemeteries in Duluth which now, of course, are public cemeteries. Bethany Cemetery, where most of my ancestors are buried, was established by then Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church possibly as early as the 1880s. It is located a short distance from the Duluth city limits in Hermantown. Park Hill is located in the Woodland neighborhood, a considerable distance from Bethany — literally across town. On another matter, I too have a cache of letters my grandfather received, after arriving in Duluth, from his father in Sweden. I discovered them in the attic of my family home after my mother’s death. I had them translated and they have fascinating insights into that era — 1880s-’90s — in Sweden as well as Duluth. I hope you are able to locate your great-grandfather’s grave. — J.H.

  13. I enjoyed your West End Story. My great grandparents came from Sweden in 1881 and settled in Duluths west end. I posted my family tree on ancestry.com a couple years ago. Long story short I eventually got an email from a distant cousin in Sweden that had letters my great grandfather sent from 1881 to 1907. She translated them all and sent me the originals. The letters have some incredible stories of life in Duluth. I have since visited them in Sweden twice and had great reunion with new found family. Two of them are visiting Duluth in September and I would like to show them Duluth Swedish history and my great granfathers grave site. I have his obituary from 1907 and it says he was buried at the Lutheran cemetery of duluth. Is that the Bethany Cemetery now?

  14. Hey… thanks to all of you who have responded to this post about my mother’s Swedish roots! Tom: In our recent Baltic Sea trip that included time in Sweden, I did indeed notice strong similarities to our terrain back here in Duluth. So it’s no wonder so many from the Scandinavian countries settled here. And to those of you asking if I might write more about the Carlson girls’ family story… stay tuned. You never know.

  15. Heidi — Regarding your questions about Bethany Cemetery and other burial sites for early Swedish immigrants: Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church was established in the West End, at 20th Avenue West and Third Street (its parsonage is still there) in the 1880s. It later (1903) moved three blocks west and built the edifice that still exists on 23rd. I surmise that because their church buildings were in the fairly densely populated West End, the church established its cemetery in Hermantown, thus the name Bethany. It is my understanding, though, that the church relinquished its exclusive control fairly early — possibly before 1920. It then became a public cemetery and is registered with the state as such. The foregoing is merely my understanding and memory; there exist formal records of the transactions in the hands of the Bethany Cemetery Board that, if you want to do research reflecting the cemetery’s official history, I can help you review. I happen to be a recent addition to that board. Like you, I always thought Oneota was public, non-denominational but I know nothing official about that. I didn’t know Park Hill was a Lutheran cemetery. Feel free to e-mail me if you would like further research sources for Bethany. And thanks for writing.

  16. Thanks for this article. Very interesting. I lived in that neighborhood many years ago and, yes, it was very steep. Enjoy these articles. And half of my family was also from Sweden.

  17. Great article, Jim.

    I have become very interested in the history of Duluth’s cemeteries these days, and have started becoming familiar with Oneota as well as those near my home (Forest Hill and Park Hill). I was surprised to read about Bethany, since I know that Park Hill was always the Scandinavian, or Lutheran cemetery. I can see though, that Park Hill (even before its move from the lakeshore) is about twice as far as Bethany Cemetery from the West End. I always thought Oneota was more or less non-denominational, but is that not true? Why did Swedes have their own cemetery up so far away? Was there a class difference or denominational difference that made them not choose Park Hill, or was it just distance?

  18. I never lived in Duluth. I grew up in So. Calif. My dad, born 1922, was a Duluth native and forever got the News Tribune to our home, hence, I grew up reading your articles. So enjoy having the technology of today to be able to continue to read your articles. Reading your stories of the past (my dad grew up around your area and lost him in 1995), I feel “at home”.

  19. Having lived in Sweden, it’s not difficult to see why so many Swedes settled here. Apart from language and some architecture, the similarities are striking: rocky farmland, forests, lakes, eating meat, potatoes and gravy, interests in fishing, hunting, skiing, etc. Seem familiar?

    Thanks Jim for your interesting insights and willingness to share.

  20. Ah Jim, what a lovely story. Those people were so resourceful. Your Mom was remarkable.

  21. Very nice. Wishing I had that detail for my scandinavian grandparents, one Grandma from Norway, Grandpa from Sweden. Surviving that marriage mix for 60+ years was considered quite an accomplishment.

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