Chris Smith: Titanic survivor buried in a pauper’s grave in Guerneville
Our redwoods were sheer, neck-craning fascination to the visitor from Finland who earlier this week treated himself to a bit of Sonoma County exploration.
But the great trees weren’t chiefly what drew Petri “Pete” Niskanen here. He came in search of the grave of a distant uncle who died in a woodlands cabin outside of Cazadero in 1927 — possibly without ever having spoken locally of what was likely the most dramatic fact of his life:
Juho “John” Niskanen had survived the sinking of the Titanic. To local lovers of history and students of who’s who in Sonoma County graveyards, this is a bombshell.
Apparently no one hereabout ever knew that when Juho Niskanen arrived in California in 1915 as a post-Gold Rush prospector, he’d three years earlier grabbed a spot on lifeboat No. 9 as the world’s largest ship took on frigid seawater.
Distant nephew Pete Niskanen knew it. Back in Finland, he marveled at the chapter of his family’s written history that focused on “Uncle Jussi” preparing to take his wife, Ann Leena, and their six kids to America, but having to leave them behind when a daughter contracted an eye infection that prevented her from making the voyage.
“He never saw his family after that,” said Pete Niskanen, who’s 47 and lives in Nurmijärvi, just north of Helsinki.
He said, and historical accounts confirm, that in April 1912 his uncle several generations removed boarded the White Star Line’s brand new ocean liner RMS Titanic at Southampton on a third-class ticket. There’s some dispute about his birth date. However, his nephew believes his distant uncle was born was May 15, 1873, and was almost 39 when he took the voyage.
It was not his first journey to America. He’d gone in 1905 and sought out work on the East Coast. After about three years, he returned to Finland and in 1912 intended to take his entire family with him to America.
Unable to bring along his family, he traveled with other Finns. Pete Niskanen’s research found that among the third-class passengers on the Titanic’s maiden voyage were 63 Finns.
When the ship struck an iceberg and began taking on water south of Newfoundland late the night of April 14, 1912, Juho Niskanen and two companions made their way to the boat deck and helped other passengers board a lifeboat. When he then tried to board, “they kicked him off two times,” his nephew said.
An account in Encyclopedia Titanica says when no more ladies could be found to board lifeboat No. 9, “some men passengers were let it.” One was Juho Niskanen.
He was one of 712 Titanic survivors picked up by Cunard Line steamship RMS Carpathia. It arrived in New York on April 18.
Pete Niskanen said his uncle collected 50 British pounds from the White Star Line “because he’d lost all his things.”
The immigrant decided in time that after the historic disaster at sea, he would never board a ship for return to Finland or summon his family to sail over and join him.
Juho Niskanen was an experienced miner. “In Finland, he tried to find gold,” his nephew said.
After taking what work he could find on the East Coast, he at last set out for the Golden State, arriving in 1915. He Americanized his name to John Niskanen.