Updated: Dec 1, 2021

A brief diary of my travels from Iceland to America in June and July 1889

By Sveinn Árnason

The following is from the diary of Sveinn Árnason. He is IR# I28557 in the Icelandic Roots Database. Dr. Richard Beck / Rikkarð Hansson, IR# I392352, published the diary entries in Icelandic in the 1949 Almanak Ólafs S. Thorgeirssonar, page 28-40 at The English translation is by Icelandic Roots Director of Translations, Larry Thorderson. More IR#s and information are found in the notes below.

10 June 1889. Whit Monday. The "Thyra" came to Vopnafjörður, at 4:30 in the morning. About 30 people bound for America came on board and at 8:30 a.m. The ship set sail again. It arrived at Seyðisfjörður at 3:00 p.m. My brother Þórður and I (he’s 16 years old and I’m over 20 years old) were the group (A), traveling on the Anchor [Steamship] Line. Sveinn Brynjólfsson (B), who was a representative of the line, accompanied us to Seyðisfjörður; he gave us travel documents for the trip all the way to Winnipeg and obtained a certain Jón Guðnason, an interpreter for the Allan (Steamship) Line, (C) to also interpret for us Anchor Line passengers as far as Granton, in Scotland. Guðnason is a merchant in Reykjavík and from Granton he returns to Reykjavík.

Seyðisfjörður 1885

Straightaway upon arriving at Seyðisfjörður, Tóti (Þórður) and I went ashore to see Rasmussen and our Aunt Anna, his wife. (D) They received us warmly. Brother Andrés (A) wasn’t at home; he’s at school - The Apprentice Care Home (E) in Copenhagen. As we parted, Rasmussen gave me half a pound sterling (9 kronur) in gold; "too little traveling money," he said. At 12.30 that night we left again from Seyðisfjörður bound for Eskifjörður. But a pea-soup fog hit just as we were leaving and when we came out toward Hánefsstaðaeyri, we dropped anchor and there we laid to (F) for the rest of the night.

11 June. At 6:00 in the morning, the ship weighed anchor again. The weather was good then; there was a lot of fog in the air and on land, but it had lifted out at sea so that we could see to the shore. Coming out of the mouth of Seyðisfjörður, the fog hit again. At about 9:00 a.m. we saw a glimmer coming from ashore; we were told that it was Gerpir, the place where Iceland goes furthest to the east. At that point, we were only a few yards from land. The ship then turned almost straight to the sea, and the ship's horn was blown every five minutes. I was told that this was done to warn other ships and also to know how far we were from land, for echoes from the mountains could be heard if one were too close to the shore. Progress was very slow and deliberate, they finally managed to reach Reyðarfjörður though, and we reached Eskifjörður at 2:00 p.m. Tóti and I went ashore here; just for fun, though, because we didn’t know anyone.

At 10:30 in the evening, "Thyra" started again, now heading straight for the Faroe Islands. In Seyðisfjörður a man named Loftur Jörundsson, from Hrísey in Eyjafjörður, boarded, and this Loftur planned to go to America for the second time. (G) That is to say that he had gone to America six years earlier, spent time in California, and later in Panama, at the canal excavation there. From there Loftur went to Australia and was there until he came home to Iceland this spring. Loftur enjoyed being in Australia; he had worked construction with one man for rather a long time and got one pound sterling (18 ISK) per day in wages, but then he had to buy clothes, food, and services, which is certainly rather expensive there.

12 June. Clear weather with a storm from the west as the day proceeded. When we got up in the morning, the land was gone. Many kept to their beds with seasickness that day, for the swell was considerable, rocking "Thyra." Tóti and I suffered a little upset, but not much. The townsfolk were all affected to a greater or lesser degree.

13 June. When I got up in the morning, we were arriving at the Faroe Islands. Then we were sailing into a wire-straight channel between two islands. One could probably view it as a long, narrow fjord with towering mountains on both sides. After we went a little way into that channel, another channel or narrow or fjord opened up for us on the left-hand side. We went through this channel and we came out in a tiny bay. Toward the bottom of the bay is a small village called Klakksvík. We arrived there at 9:00 a.m.

A bit later we left again, out of the same channel we came into; the tall mountain being on the other side. It seemed to me, as high as Mount Bjólfur near Seyðisfjörður. After two hours, or at 12:00, we arrived at Þórshavn. The surroundings there are rather pretty. The ship stopped here for three hours. I went ashore along with a few others. There is considerable housing in Þórshöfn, but most of the houses are small. I bought tin containers here, which were necessary for the trip. Each person needs to have two dishes, one shallow, and the other deep. Also, flatware and a tin pot for coffee or tea are needed because no such thing exists on the way across the Atlantic.

It was quickly apparent that everything in the Faroe Islands is cheaper than in Vopnafjörður. One Icelandic westbound traveler bought, e.g., three bottles of brennivin for 34 aurar. (H) In Þórshöfn a Scottish missionary came aboard, bound for Granton. He handed out handbills among my countrymen with various articles printed in Icelandic, drawn from the New Testament.

At 3:00 p.m. we left Þórshöfn heading toward Trangisvaag, also in the Faroe Islands. Along the way, we faced a strong headwind. A woman then lay down on a duvet and had a baby; she was from Hérað, but I don’t know anything else about her. She had been seasick for a long time. There was talk that she would be left in Trangisvaag, but that didn’t happen; they clearly didn’t trust themselves to bring her ashore. We arrived at Trangisvaag at 8.30 p.m. It was stormy and raining at the time. We departed again at one o'clock in the morning and sailed straight to Granton in Scotland.

14 June. Good weather, gentle southwesterly breeze, with gusts of gale winds. (I) That day, a girl ended up overboard (doubtless intentionally). The ship was stopped right away, a boat dispatched, and the girl was rescued; it helped that the wind had caught [her] skirt and held her up. She had scarcely any signs of life, but she still recovered surprisingly quickly. It was decided to leave this woman behind in Granton and then send her back to Iceland from there because she wasn’t considered to be fully rational. So that’s all I know about that. Just after noon, we spotted land, the Shetland Islands, just out on the horizon, on the left.

15 June. Clear, beautiful day; extraordinary! At 5:00 in the morning, Scotland was sighted southwest of the ship. Shortly before noon, we were before the northernmost town in Scotland, the town called Peterhead. There they sent ashore to get medical help for the woman who had the baby on our way through the Faroe Islands because she must have been dangerously ill. Peturhead was the first town we saw; people began to practically stare at the buildings, and it's a small town compared to other towns in Britain. After a short stay we left there again, sailing south along the coasts of Scotland — a long way around, it seemed to me — until we arrived at 7:00 in the evening south to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the largest fjord in Scotland. I thought that one of the most remarkable things I saw that day was a lighthouse about 10 miles offshore, built right up out of the sea.

In the evening we sailed into the Firth and arrived in Granton at 11.30 p.m. It was getting completely dark so nothing could be seen on land except the rows of lights everywhere. Yes, the lights; they were glorious, and one striking thing for us was that in every direction we could see, on land, different colors: white, red, and green lights. Another thing that struck some people funny was that now, in the middle of June, it should be coal black at night and stars can be seen all over the sky. Even the Milky Way [appears] almost as clear as in a short day [in winter] at home in Iceland. In five days we had sailed south from bright nights. For some reason, unknown to me, the ship didn’t dock until early the next morning.

16 June. Trinity Sunday. (J) Bright, clear skies, calm, sunny, and hot. At 5:00 in the morning, we woke up to the sound of the captain of the Thyra shouting down to us in the hold: "Call for America". Everyone stood, got off the ship, and waited on the dock while our goods were brought up, then examined by customs officers, who cursorily glanced at the people’s trunks and loaded them straightaway into the coaches.

On the pier was the first horse I saw in Scotland; everyone thought the horse was admirably beautiful and in more ways than one: He was considerably above my height at the withers; consequently, he was sturdy and strong, well-fed, snow-white, and his body glistened. Then there was the harness, something that we had not before seen used in practice, and in which this horse was contained, resplendent in copper and worked brass, everything seeming polished and radiant.

When the crossing was finished, we had to walk quite a distance to the point where we boarded a railcar, and our travel documents were taken from us. The train then departed and we arrived in Glasgow 1½ hours later. From the carriages, we had to walk a full half-hour through the town until we arrived at the Emigranta Hotel. We Anchor Line people did splendidly there. With us were about 30 Allan Line emigrants to Glasgow; they had much worse housing than we did. I had a headache that day.

17 June. Monday. We are free to wander Glasgow. Some Icelanders took a look around the shops and some bought various things, which were cheap if you were canny enough to compare prices. There didn’t seem to be a fixed price for anything as we entered the shops, and merchants tried to bring their goods out to strangers with inflated prices if they could.

In the evening, the Anchor Line representative came to us with the news that anyone with that line and a ticket to Winnipeg should leave at 8:00 the next morning for Liverpool in England, and then from there by Dominion Line ship to Quebec. The stated reasons for this were that the Anchor Line does not want to carry those who plan to settle in Canada to New York, probably because it’s considered too expensive. But the Anchor Line ships don’t go anywhere but New York, so they got the Dominion Line to transport us to Quebec, because that's where their ships go, but they’re all based in Liverpool, and that's why we had to go there. I thought it was extremely fortunate because it offered me a chance to see much more of both Scotland and England for free.

18 June. This morning we got our travel documents back. Then we bid farewell to Jón of Búastöðum and his people and we said goodbye to all the other Allan Line passengers. Then we set off on foot, rushing a short distance through the city, then up a high staircase, up to some hill in the town and there was the train station and up there we waited for an hour for the train. Then we boarded and set off heading for Liverpool, 225 English miles distant; we were 5½ hours on route. When we got to Liverpool we had to walk a long way to reach the emigrant housing there, tired and hungry, so we quickly ate dinner.

19 and 20 June. We were free to wander Liverpool. In those days there was little news, except what we picked up as we wandered about the town. That’s how we came to go to the train station in order to pick up the goods that we needed to have with us on the sea voyage; on the way back, a young man who had accompanied us wandered away. There was fair weather the whole day, but in spite of that, the sun only shone through the fog or smoky haze, coming from the workshops, that always overlays the city.

21 June. We left Liverpool and were transported on a small steamer to the ocean liner we were to travel on. The ship is a mighty hull, said to be 80 fathoms long, and is called "Sarnia". (K) We weighed anchor at 4:00 p.m. and set off, first to Ireland.

SS Sarnia - Dominion Line -

22 June. The weather was fine, with sharp winds from the west. At 6:00 in the morning, we arrived at Londonderry in Ireland, northward of the east coast where several Irish immigrants boarded the ship. It set off again at 10:00 a.m., sailing north of the northern end of Ireland and then heading straight for the sea to the west.

23, 24, and 25 June. There was a constant storm directly ahead of us, so the trip was somewhat hindered. We had the best of cuisine on the ship. At 8:00 in the morning, we first had sweet coffee, fresh white bread, and either potatoes and white gravy or oatmeal and brown sugar as we wished. Lunch at 1:00: Soup or beans, potatoes, beef or bacon, and either plum pudding or rice pudding on alternate days with raisins afterward. At 5:00 p.m. came sweet tea and bread, and finally at. 8 p.m. oatmeal with brown sugar. We got as much of any of the food as we wanted and moreover, we always had a sack full of biscuits, which anyone who wanted to could eat between meals.

26, 27, and 28 June. All these days there was an unrelenting gale-strength headwind, so one could hardly stand on the deck, the angry sea and ocean storm washed over the ship, so you got pouring wet if you came up top. Many were very sick, especially women and children, and some quickly developed stomach ailments. I was always quite healthy, but Tóti was mildly stricken now and then with seasickness. The headwind delayed us; the ship sailed only six to nine English miles per hour, instead of the 20 to 25 miles it would have gone if the weather had been reasonable. Newfoundland was sighted, by telescope only, to the south on the evening of 28 June.

The sea had grown quite smooth; however, there was still a diminishing westerly headwind. In the morning, floes of sea ice were seen here and there, some of them as high as towers. It was so cold in the morning that the moisture was frozen to the deck. But then the weather began to improve as the day went on. In the evening we passed many islands, most seeming rather small. We suspected that most of these islands were uninhabited.

30 June. Fine weather, sunshine, and calm. The other day we saw land on the starboard side; it was the mainland of America.

01 July. The same weather. The land was now seen leeward in the morning and in the middle of the day we saw land on both sides, and we were beginning to sail into the long fjord, by which the city of Quebec stands, called the St. Lawrence Fjord. Late in the day, the ship's doctor examined everyone and checked which people had been vaccinated. All those with visible vaccination scars received a passport to be shown on the railway, but he vaccinated everyone else.

02 July. Same weather, even hotter, though, so everyone was pouring sweat just sitting still on the deck. At 11 a.m. the ship stopped (it still hadn’t arrived at Quebec); it was waiting for a doctor, who came from the shore. This doctor examined the passengers again and vaccinated anyone not vaccinated by the ship's doctor. At 12 noon we set off again and finally arrived in Quebec at 3.00 p.m. The ship berthed at a pier on the south side of the fjord, where everyone going to the United States debarked. All goods were also unloaded there, but those who were going to Winnipeg were transported on a small ship north over the fjord or rather across the river (the St. Lawrence River). The main city is on that side. As soon as we got to the pier we were directed to a building where we could buy food for the land journey because you have to provide for your own food on the train. Here we also had to exchange our travel documents; we got a railway ticket [in exchange] for the sea passage documents. Here we also got numbered brass plates, which need to be stored carefully, because others with the same number are compartmented together.

At 8:45 in the evening, we boarded the coaches and dashed off westward toward Winnipeg. The latter part of the day I had a really bad headache. Railroad coaches in America are very different from those in England: here they are larger, many times longer, and one can walk from one carriage to another. The fixtures are such that on both sides there are benches, for two people each, and in them, people have to lie down at night, and also there are hammocks above that hold another two. A corridor runs lengthwise down the middle of the carriages. It should be noted here that a pillow is indispensable for every person to bring along on the trip.

03 July. Same weather. When we woke up in the morning, the train was stopped. Rather, the two hindmost carriages from the train, the ones we Icelanders were in, had been left on a side track sometime during the night while the main train continued on. There was angry grumbling by some over our incomprehensible delay, but we soon learned the reason, which was this: As I mentioned above, everyone had to change travel documents in Quebec, but now it had turned out that Sigri Finnbogason from Vakursstaðir and Vigfús Jónsson from Ljótsstaðir hadn’t made this exchange. (L) The engineer wasn’t allowed to carry anyone who didn’t have a legal railway pass to present. This exchange could only be done at the main office of the Pacific Railway Company in Quebec.

They took the sea passage documents from Fúsa and Sigra in their anger

that night, sent them on the first train that went east to Quebec, and then the right documents came back from Quebec sometime in the latter part of the day. But a train to Winnipeg leaves once a day, and our carriages were attached to the back of a train that left at about the same time tonight as the other one last night. Everyone then brightened up considerably at our being on th