Famous ship brought the Persson brothers to Canada

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

The ship Gunnar Persson came from Sweden to Canada in June of 1929 had a long and illustrious history. Built in Newcastle, England in 1924 for the Swedish American Line, it served for many years as an immigrant ship.

The MS Gripsholm, of the Swedish American Line.

According to the Wikipedia article, Gripsholm was the first-ever diesel-powered ship built for trans-Atlantic express service, taking over from the steam-driven type that had predominated and taken over from the days of wind-power. Gripsholm also made history by being one of the first ships to dock at Halifax’s famous Pier 21, the first stop in North America for tens of thousands of immigrants.

That’s likely where the 20-year-old Ernst Gunnar Persson first set foot on North American soil. June 4, 1929 is the date on the passenger manifest. He wasn’t exactly traveling alone. Five of his fellow passengers are listed as coming from the same small town in Sweden, and four of them were headed for Smith, Alberta! Gunnar’s older brother Emil was already working for the Northern Alberta Railroad in Slave Lake and had enticed Gunnar over with prospects for a job there. Perhaps he also had jobs lined up for the hometown boys in Smith. Their surnames were Roos, Persson (A relative? The family doesn’t know), Andersson and Nilsson.

Getting back to the MS (Motor Ship) Gripsholm, it made 101 trips with immigrants to Pier 21. From 1942 – 46, it was chartered by the U.S. Government as an ‘exchange and repatriation’ ship, carrying German and Japanese people to neutral sites to be exchanged for U.S. and Canadian citizens.

In 1954 Gripsholm became MS Berlin after being sold to a German company, and resumed trans-Atlantic immigration voyages. An image of the ship arriving at Pier 21 became the centre image of the Canadian epassport in 2012. The ship was sold for scrap in 1966.

Famous passengers on the MS Gripsholm included author Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline Pfeiffer, twice in the 1930s.

Determined and apparently fearless. Brian also tells a story about his dad’s somewhat antagonistic relationship with the person whose job it was to make sure commercial fishermen observed the rules. Apparently skirting around the edges of those rules and sometimes going over them was not uncommon. One dark and foggy night Emil and Ray Fiddler were out on the lake pulling nets and suddenly, silently, the ‘fish cop’ was there in his boat.

“I finally caught you, Emil!” he said, triumphantly, one leg in each boat.

Meanwhile, Emil, at the far end of his boat, cut free his nets and while he was at it, reached over and cut the officer’s gas line to his boat motor. The story is there for all to read on Brian’s Facebook page.

“He wasn’t a poacher by any means,” says Brian. “But he did what he had to do to make a living. I’m proud of him. He was going to get out of poverty one way or another.”

No story of a person growing up in the 1940s and 50s would be complete without mentioning baseball. Like most young people, Emil loved the game and played it as much as he could. He was teammates with local stars Dougie Jackson and Ken Olson and squeezed in as much ball as he could. Harry Bartlett of Slave Lake reminisced about Emil as a ball player in an article that appeared in The Leader back in 1999:

“When I was a kid growing up, Emil was a baseball player, a left-handed batter. He would swing so hard he’d fall down, jump up and laugh. He was a teaser, a tormentor, and made a real name for himself in baseball. He was a good entertainer and loved the game. He was really a neat character.”

The Persson mink barns were just west of downtown Slave Lake – an area that is now all built-up residential. Their log house was just west of the Catholic Church.