Culver’s Titanic connection -- 100 years later
Of the approximately 700 survivors of the April 12, 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic ship, only one would eventually settle in Indiana, and August Wennerström made Culver his home -- a home he loved so much he named one of his children Culver. Further, evidence of the Titanic connection to Culver still exists in the form of three maple trees planted in memory of the children of the widower of one soul lost in the sinking.
This month, the world observes the 100th anniversary of a disaster which continues to fascinate the population at large, by way of the re-release (in 3D) of the megahit 1997 movie about the event, besides a slew of projects -- film, video, print, and public.
Culver's connection began in 1912, when August Edvard Andersson, a young Swedish socialist journalist and publisher, received an offer of a newspaper job in far-off Chicago. Traveling under the pseudonym "Wennerström," he met several other Swedes who were emigrating or returning to the US including Alma Pålsson and her four children, who were on their way to Chicago to rejoin their husband and father, Nils.
As the Titanic began to sink, some lifeboats were deliberately launched partly empty so that they could row back for survivors, which eventually inadvertantly saved Wennerström.
He later wrote of the sinking, "Cry, cry everywhere. Prayer and more prayer. Not very often has God been remembered and called on as he was in that night.
"The place where [Titanic] went down was immediately filled with drowning people...Many died very quickly, others put up a hard fight but could not stand the chill."
As the ship sank, Wennerström first tried to rescue two of the Pålsson children, but lost hold of them. "For how long a time I was away from the boat, I don't know," he wrote. "When I recovered consciousness, I was floating on top of three human lives interlocked together."
He made it the fifty feet to Collapsible lifeboat A, though without its sides up, the shallow collapsible boat was not much better than a raft in the icy water. Encyclopedia Titanica quotes Wennerström as saying: "All the feeling had left us. If we wanted to know if we still had legs...left, we had to feel down in the water with our hand. The only exercise we got was when someone gave up hope and died, whom we immediately threw overboard to give the live ones a little more space and at the same time lighten the weight of the boat."
By dawn, at least half a dozen bodies had been jettisoned.
Carpathia delivered the survivors to New York on April 18. Wennerström was given temporary shelter at a Salvation Army facility, then sent on to Chicago with $25 from the Salvation Army and $100 from the Red Cross. It was at the Salvation Army in Chicago that he met Naomi Johnson, whom he eventually married. Around 1918, they decided to move to Culver (or, at least, to visit here—stories differ). At the same time, Culver Military Academy was expecting the arrival of a new gardener named "Leo," to work particularly for Mr. E. R. Culver.
Somehow, Andersson / Wennerström was confused with the gardener, and when the fellow never showed up, August ended up getting both his job and yet another (nick)name, "Leo."
He and Naomi had a daughter and six sons, one named Leo (a grade school classmate of my mother's) and one Culver. Wennerström quickly became Superintendent of Building and Grounds at the Academy, a position he held until 1941.
Wennerström frequently spoke at the Academy and in town about his experience on Titanic, but that was not the only area of his civic involvement. A 1933 article in the CMA Vedette reports that he gave 1000 two year old Norwegian Spruce seedlings to local schoolchildren, at his own expense, as a way of beautifying the town.
Culver developed a second link to the Titanic in 1946 when Nils Pålsson (by then Anglicized to Paulson) finally remarried and retired to Culver, presumably because he had been in touch with Wennerström. He and his wife Christina lived at 605 William Street, but he owned a garden plot on Thorn Road, next to the home of Allen and Rosemary Weaver, where he planted four maple seedlings, apparently in memory of the four children he had lost decades before (the trees still stand and are easily visible at roadside).
The Weavers' son Dan was between five and eight years old when a teary-eyed, older man with whom he was already familiar through frequent visits with Allen, came to the Weavers’ house on Thorn Road in Culver.
"He cried as he was planting them," recalls Weaver. "It was just sad.”
Dan Weaver says he knew Nils Paulson had lost his wife and children to the wreck of a ship called the Titanic, “but I didn’t realize the connection and the importance of the history of the event. I just knew he had lost his family.
August Wennerström died on November 22, 1950, Nils Paulson, on September 21, 1964: both are buried in the Culver Masonic Cemetery. Alma Pålsson's body, recovered from the north Atlantic, was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on May 8, 1912. Her children were never found.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from “A Night to Remember: Culver’s Titanic survivor,” by Rev. John Wm. Houghton, originally published in the April 21, 2010 Culver Citizen, as well as an Oct. 29, 2009 Culver Citizen article by editor Jeff Kenney.