Chris Smith: Titanic survivor buried in a pauper’s grave in Guerneville

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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.

It doesn’t surprise his nephew that he might never have mentioned that he’d come through the sinking of the Titanic.

“He was ashamed to tell that he survived and so many died,” Pete Niskanen said. More than 1,500 passengers and crew members lost their lives.

Juho Niskanen also seemed to keep largely to himself. By about 1919 he was living on a remote ranch 8 miles north of Cazadero.

He lived in a cabin with only, it seems, his gathering demons. Stories in The Press Democrat and the Petaluma Argus-Courier in August of 1924 recounted his arrest on suspicion of drawing a knife and threatening to kill neighbor Emily Jenner, and also starting a forest fire.

Three years later, Juho Niskanen was dead. Country neighbors alarmed by a column of dark smoke found his cabin ablaze. His body was inside, with a rifle lying across it.

Authorities determined he’d set the cabin on fire and then shot himself. Observed a Press Democrat story, “Niskanen, though he lived alone, was not a recluse, officers learned, for until a few weeks ago he had associated regularly, while engaged in tie splitting, boarded at the homes of other rangers in the area.

“Recently, however, he had been acting queerly. Believing he had discovered gold on his ranch, after years of prospecting, he carefully guarded his secrets from neighbors and passersby. ‘Gold’ piled in the house and in sheds on the place was ordinary rock, officers said.”

On Aug. 27, 1927, Juno Niskanen was buried in what would have been an unmarked or simply marked grave in what was Guerneville’s hillside Independent Order of Odd Fellows cemetery.

From that day until late last month, local historians and cemetery volunteers had no idea a Titanic survivor was buried in a long-forgotten pauper’s grave in Guerneville.

Planning a trip to California and to a car show in Victoria, British Columbia, Pete Niskanen decided to come see where his ancestor was buried. He phoned Santa Rosa City Hall because his research showed that Juho Niskanen had been laid to rest at the Odd Fellows Cemetery on Franklin Avenue.

A city employee referred him to Sandy Frary, a researcher active in the organization that maintains the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, directly adjacent to the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Thrilled to be told there was a Titanic survivor buried in Sonoma County, she and fellow researcher Ray Owen went to work finding anything they could about Juho Niskanen. A key discovery: Documents showing that he was buried in Santa Rosa were in error. He was in fact interred at the former Odd Fellows Cemetery, now Redwood Memorial Gardens, in Guerneville.

On Monday, Frary and Owen accompanied Pete Niskanen there so that he could see where his uncle was laid to rest 92 years ago. They were met by Jane and Paul Barry and John Schubert of the Russian River Historical Society.

Paul Barry would have loved to point to the exact spot the Titanic survivor is buried, but he could not.

“It’s kind of anybody’s guess,” Barry told the visitor from Finland. “Being an indigent, they could have put him anywhere.”

Barry did point out a couple of areas where burials occurred in the late 1920s, and suggested it is possible that Juho Niskanen’s grave is there, or near there.

It was good enough for the traveler from Finland to know he was in the graveyard where the family member he’d long heard about lay.

Someone suggested that one of the cemetery’s redwood trees might have taken root directly over the grave of the man who survived the Titanic disaster only to die tragically in Sonoma County.

Pete Niskänen gazed up at one of the trees and smiled.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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