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Charles Anderson, Boatman and Black Sheep

“The grandson wants to remember what the father wished to forget.” –anonymous

One of my great-grandfathers was a Swede named Charles Anderson (1859-1916), a boatman on the canals of northern Illinois—and he was quite a character.  Grandma never talked about him—but being a big fan of black sheep stories (especially when the aforementioned stories come from within my own family), I think I shall.

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Charles came from Sweden to Lemont, Illinois with his parents when he was nine.  In 1888 he married Emma Hanson, the daughter of the local hotelkeeper, and they had four sons and a daughter—the daughter being my grandmother, Clara.  In the 1900 census, Charles and Emma live with their four children (with another one on the way) in Lemont, next door to Charles’ parents.  Charles is a canal boat captain and they own their home.

But all was not well… At some point Emma decided she’d had enough of Charles’ drinking (and who knows what else).  She left their daughter Clara with her parents, separated herself from Charles, took the four boys with her, and moved to Joliet.

What a difference ten years makes!  By the 1910 census, Emma is living in Joliet and is listed as a ‘widow’ with no occupation.  Her two teenaged boys work to support the family.  Charles apparently remained in Lemont.

Lemont was a wild town then.  The City of Lemont website says this about the canal area:  “In the 1890s, construction began on the Sanitary & Ship Canal.  The downtown area known as ‘Smokey Row’ with its bars and brothels gained notoriety as the wildest, most sinful street in the country.”

Perhaps that particular neighborhood was Charles’ favorite haunt in Lemont—because the next we hear of him is this article in the local newspaper, dated 1916:

CANAL VICTIM’S BODY IDENTIFIED

“Lockport, June 7 – The body found in the Sanitary District canal at the Power House yesterday morning was identified last evening as that of Charles Anderson of Lemont.  Mr. Anderson disappeared from his home Tuesday evening, May 30.  Anderson leaves a wife who is said to reside in Joliet besides two sons.  He was a former boatman employed on the Illinois and Michigan Canal for several years.  The body was removed to Lemont and the funeral will be held tomorrow afternoon.”

A second article says that he left for work one evening and it was thought that he missed his footing and fell in.  According to my mother, family tradition says that he was drunk at the time.

Charles and Emma’s daughter Clara became a schoolteacher and later, a farmer’s wife and my grandmother.  Charles and Emma’s four sons, it is said, did not turn out so well.  But that’s a story for another day.

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