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History in the Hills: Titanic local connections

It’s funny how some things from childhood stay with you into adulthood. I hear often folks talk about things they were into once upon a time, usually an activity, interest or book that brought them joy as a child but doesn’t seem to resonate any longer.

I think that is natural. Tastes, ideas and maturity levels change as well as interests, and as one gets older, things of childhood are pushed aside for other things. Still those early interests can sometimes find a way into your soul and shape the person you become on a subconscious level.

For others, interests developed in childhood stay with you for a lifetime. For instance, my wife read as a child Laura Ingles Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” and it was one of those books that became an indelible part of growing up. Without Laura, my wife’s childhood may have been a little less bright. All in all, whether or not you still share interests with your childhood self, these things make an impact and become part of you.

For me, it might not be surprising that history has taken center stage. Especially the history of the doomed ship the RMS Titanic that sank on April 15, 1912. For any of you who truly know me, know that I have been fascinated by that story for as long as I can remember. And when James Cameron’s movie debuted in 1998, I think I saw it at the Plaza about eight times. I was fascinated by the whole history of the ship, devouring pretty much everything I could about it. As a child I remember setting up a “Titanic Museum” in my living room, a precursor evidently to what I do professionally today.

Surprisingly enough, we don’t have to look very far to find some Titanic history right here in our area. In Weirton, a residence exists on Avenue I that was home to Titanic survivor Elin Nummi and her family. Elin was born in 1888 in Finland and lived the first 17 years of her life there until she decided to immigrate to America.

Arriving in Boston, she became a domestic, as many young women did in those days, but by 1911, she was homesick, and a trip back to the old world was in order. It was there that she met Pekka Hakkarainen, another immigrant who had made the trip to America in 1902 and by 1911 had become homesick for the old world, too. In January 1912, Pekka and Elin were married and eager to start their new life together in Monessen, Pa. Pekka was employed by the American Sheet and Tin Plate Co. in that city and had a steady paying job waiting for him upon his return.

The newlyweds were supposed to travel back on another well-known ocean liner, the RMS Mauretania, but decided to wait to take the brand new Titanic on her maiden voyage as their honeymoon trip. The couple disembarked on April 10 from Southampton as third-class passengers with a cabin on E Deck.

On the night of the sinking, Pekka and Elin were exhausted after a full day and retired late that Sunday night. When the ship collided with the iceberg around 11:40 p.m., it was a jarring experience for the couple. Pekka quickly dressed and said to his wife, “I’m going to see what has happened.” Elin, exhausted, returned to sleep only to be awakened later by commotion in the passageways. Luckily, around 1:15 a.m. Finish speaking friends came and retrieved Elin and informed her the ship was sinking. What followed was a daring escape from the depths of the ship using access ladders and passages used by crew members as some of the regular passages for third-class passengers were tightly locked, sealing the fate of those trapped below.

Elin was admitted to a lifeboat, dressed only in her nightgown and life vest and by the grace of God survived the sinking. To me the most heart-wrenching part of her story is the fact that Pekka never did return to their cabin, and after the ship went down, from her lifeboat she called out to him in the darkness letting him know she was near.

Upon arriving in America alone, Elin immigrated to Monessen and later moved to Weirton in 1916 where she met and married Emil Nummi, and they settled down in their home on Avenue I. Their fantastic story is explained in the book, “I’m Going to See What Has Happened” written by Gerald Nummi and Janet White. Gerald is the son of Elin and Emil and was born here in 1920.

Anyone interested in a firsthand account of the disaster will not be disappointed by this telling.

There are others from our area who also survived the Titanic disaster whose stories have not been told so completely.

The Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County maintains a record of those from our area who have a Titanic connection and it is available through the Digital Shoebox online or by a visit to the Schiappa Branch.

Frank Milatto, an Italian immigrant, and a Steubenville resident, survived the sinking, according to a Steubenville Weekly Herald article, by hiding under a bench in a lifeboat and as the boat rowed away, he was discovered and “put to rowing.”

But that does not beat the story of John F. Koshun, a Mingo Junction resident who was 8 months old at the time of the disaster. According to an April 15, 1932, article in the Herald-Star, little John survived the sinking due to the fact he was wrapped in a rubber blanket and attached to his mother’s back as they both floated in the icy cold North Atlantic water for quite some time after the ship went down. John and his mother survived the sinking.

This year marks the 109th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, but I don’t anticipate the interest in this event will wain, though, as the years go on. There is something in the story that is appealing to us despite the tragedy that it was. After many years it still holds my interest, and there are still fascinating local connections there yet to be discovered.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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