Sunday, January 14, 2018

Following the Line: 52 Ancestors

Imagine you are standing in a railway station in 1880, waiting for a cousin's arrival. Can you see the steam engine coming down the line? It's huffing and puffing and hissing as it comes into the station with a screech of the brakes. The fireman is shoveling coal into the engine while baggage is unloaded and passengers step onto the platform. The conductor makes the final boarding call as new passengers board. The engineer pulls on the whistle and the train rumbles away, billowing noxious black smoke. As you brush ash from your clothing, a porter carries your cousin's luggage to your wagon.

You've seen a handful of railroad workers in those few minutes. But did you give any thought to the thousands of workers that created that infrastructure and manage the railroad line? Construction workers built trestles, blasted tunnels, laid tracks and built stations. Station staff now sell tickets and assist passengers. The line workers run trains, inspect tracks and manage signals and switches. Office workers manage schedules, staff and accounting.

One of the thousands of workers on the Swedish railroad lines was my great-great-grandfather, Eric Edward Fors. The government of Sweden was late to start building railroads, beginning only in 1855. Edward, born in 1840, in Björnlunda, Södermanland, found a job with the railroad about the time he turned 20. He became a järnvägsarbetare, a railway worker. The first few years of his career are a mystery, as he was moving around Stockholm, a large and challenging city to research.

1864 finds Edward moving away from the city to Södertälje, marrying and becoming a father. His occupation in the church records hints at the job he was doing for the railroad: mureriarbetare, a bricklayer. For the next 10 years, Edward moved from town to town as a bricklayer. Many of the railway stations were built of brick. Edward must have been building those railway stations as the lines were extended.

From 1875 to 1881, Edward had the occupation of banvakt, a line worker. A 1906 book describes the responsibilities of a banvakt to include managing signals and switches and walking part of the line to ensure that no obstacle to the safe passage of the train was found. He would also supervise the telegraph lines along the track and provide assistance in case of accident.

In 1881, at the age of 41, Edward received a promotion. He became a banmästare, an overseer of a railway line. He was a supervisor of the banvakt workers. His overall responsibilities included the safety of the train and periodic inspections.

The only photo I have of Eric Edward Fors shows him in his banmästare uniform with his wife and three youngest children. Gerda was born in 1879, so the photo was taken in the early 1880s.

Eric Edward Fors with wife Matilda Wilhelmina Wiberg
and children Arvid Edward, Eric Anton, Gerda Matilda

Edward and his family lived in the 1880s in the town of Boxholm, Östergötland. The old railroad station is still standing today, though it is not in use for that purpose. There is no record that Edward helped build it, but it is an excellent example of the many stations that were built using the same design.

The family may have lived in the railroad station or in a home nearby. They were recorded as living at Järnvägstation (railway station), which is also the name of the street that runs next to the old station. My cousin, Claes Nyström, visited Boxholm a couple of years ago and generously took photos of the old station for me. Behind the station you can see the tracks, a railway car and the lines that power the electric trains today.

Old Boxholm Railway Station, Östergötland, 2015
Courtesy Claes Nyström

Old Boxholm Railway Station, Östergötland, 2015
Courtesy Claes Nyström

Edward held the job of banmästare for 23 years, retiring in 1904, at the age of 64. He and his family moved from Boxholm to Huddinge, near Stockholm, in 1889. His final posting was returning south to Okna Järnvägstation near Kullerstad in 1896. In Okna they lived at the Banmästerebostad (Banmästere Residence). Edward had come a long way from his start as a järnvägsarbetare.

Edward and his wife, Matilda, moved back to the area southwest of Stockholm where they had lived early in their lives. Matilda died in 1922 in Frustuna, Södermanland. Edward died in 1927, also in Frustuna.

This map shows in red the places where Edward served as banmästare. The blue markers show all the other towns where he lived throughout his long career following the railway lines. Click on the map to see a live version.

The Railroad Career of Eric Edward Fors (1840-1927)

Taking the time to follow Edward down the railroad line also revealed the answer to a long-held mystery. That, dear cousins, is a tale for another day.

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