THE TITANIC DISASTER AND ITS COKATO CONNECTION
by Martha Jacobson
In this day when we hear of global disasters almost as they happen, is it not surprising to learn how slowly and by what manner, news was carried--and often distorted--as recently as the early years of this, the twentieth century?
On April 25, 1912, the Cokato Enterprise reported that a Cokato couple perished in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. This story--recreated below--created much speculation by local residents and more recently an inquiry to the Cokato Historical Society from the Titanic Historical Society, Indian Orchard, Massachusetts.
MRS. WM. LAHTINEN DIES WITH HUSBAND
Refuses Chance to Be Saved and
Both Go Down With Ill-Fated Titanic
Refusing to be parted from her husband, and preferring death to separation, is the thrilling story related of Mrs. William Lahtinen, who with her husband, was among the victims of the steamship Titanic.
Public fascination with the Titanic is evidenced by the production of at least three movies and by countless numbers of books which have been published over the years. One book, The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters, published in May 1912, gives a detailed description of the luxury liner and many thrilling accounts of heroism, cowardice, and calamitous distress as witnessed by the panic-stricken survivors.
At first it was believed that the woman bearing the same name was Mrs. Lahtinen, but news brought Tuesday by Isaac Stein, who returned on that day from Hancock, Mich., has established the fact that it was a Miss Lahtinen, a sister of Rev. Lahtinen, who was saved.
Mrs. Lahtinen was offered a place on one of the lifeboats, but when she learned that her husband would be unable to accompany her she refused the chance to be saved, and together, they went to their deaths in the icy waters of the treacherous Atlantic.
Mr. Lahtinen had arranged with Contractor Nels Hill of Cokato to have a residence built in Minneapolis which was to be ready for Mr. Lahtinen's occupancy on his return from Finland, and which was nearly completed at the time of the awful disaster.
Mr. Lahtinen was one of the best known Finnish ministers in America. He was 35 years old, and had resided for many years in Cokato, where he was pastor of the Apostolic Lutheran Church.
From its tattered pages, we do find William Lahtinen's name appearing on the "Roll of the Dead - Second Cabin." Presuming her to be on a lifeboat, Mrs. Lahtinen is not listed on either roll--the living or the dead. The survivor, Lydia Silfven, was in fact Mrs. Lahtinen's sister, an instructor at Suomi College in Hancock, Michigan. It was she who told of yet an earlier tragic happening: the reason for their unscheduled return on the ill-fated Titanic.
While on the crossing to Europe, the Lahtinen's five-year old daughter became very ill, subsequently died in Finland, and was buried there. As a result of this tragedy and the ensuing delay, the liner on which they were to return had already left port. Since the new church and home in Minneapolis awaited them, they booked passage on the next liner scheduled to leave Southampton, England, at noon on April 10, 1912. Most unfortunately, this turned out to be the maiden voyage of the "unsinkable" Titanic.
From the church records, we learn that the first baptism to be performed by Pastor Lahtinen took place in 1905. Other than that, there seems to be no indication of when he first assumed the ministry of the Cokato Apostolic Lutheran Church.
An oft-related, dramatic sidelight to the Lahtinen saga is an incident, authenticated by many who are now deceased but who were present when the pastor gave his farewell sermon at the church in Cokato Township. After the final "amen" was spoken, an elderly lady from the local community who possessed exceptional powers of clairvoyance, stood up and begged him not to make the overseas voyage. She warned of impending danger and great sadness if the planned journey was not cancelled.
Reportedly, a standing-room only audience was in attendance that day to bid the Lahtinens farewell. Upon hearing such an unexpected admonition, the stunned silence that befell the congregation, but only momentarily, soon gave way to sharp criticism of the gifted lady's timely predictions.
Although I was not born until three years after the accident, during my early childhood, there was still much speculation and conversation about the tragedy and the Lahtinens. This was especially true when friends or relatives from the Upper Peninsula came to visit.
An older sister (always an optimist) took credit for having named me after the "pretty little girl" who had died in Finland. Perhaps it was the sad tone of her voice or maybe, like most kids, I would have preferred a 'fancier" name. Whatever the reason, it was definitely not a story I cared to hear.
The church in that day did not furnish a parsonage for the minister, and the Lahtinens had purchased or rented a home north of Brooks Lake, a mile and half from the Strolberg farm, which was purchased by my parents in 1908. A friendship which had begun in Hancock, Michigan, was quickly renewed. Their last visit with my parents came on the day before they left for New York.
Newspaper accounts of the Titanic's sinking were carried across the country in many local newspapers, like the Cokato Enterprise. These accounts talked much about the many wealthy people, such as Col. John Jacob Astor, who perished in the icy waters. Included in those deaths though, were many ordinary citizens, like Rev. William Lahtinen. His death was felt by all, and for Cokato put a human face on one of the worst maritime disasters in modem history.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of In The Midst Of. ©Cokato Historical Society, 1998.