MORE THAN 30 years ago, my wife and I disastrously hosted our first Thanksgiving feast meant to introduce Vietnamese neighbors to an American immigrant ritual, and roasted our first turkey. Benjamin Franklin’s favored bird, bane of chefs and home cooks alike, often emerges from the oven raw or overdone, but our perfectly basted 14-pounder seemed to achieve a happy medium. As I transferred it from pan to platter, however, a previously unnoticed bag of giblets exploded from the neck cavity. We assured our slightly unnerved friends that this was not part of the traditional fare.
In this week’s “Then” portrait of King Street Station coachyard workers and trains, taken 22 days before the Oct. 24, 1929, stock-market crash that launched the Great Depression, we encounter another particularly American story of arrival, immigration and citizenship. Ninety years later and by coincidence, two Seattle descendants of men portrayed here separately presented us with this rare image.
It began when Casey McNerthey,visiting a postcard and photo exhibition in Portland in April, spotted a panoramic print in a dealer’s booth. Its inscription matched up with his great-grandfather Matt McAlerney’s time at the coachyard. Leaning in to examine the photo more closely, McNerthey delighted in finding McAlerney’s face in the crowd. “No way,” he thought. “What are the odds of that?” McNerthey purchased it on the spot.
Having immigrated to Seattle from County Down in Northern Ireland in 1911, McAlerney soon found work with the Great Northern Railroad. In October 1916, he met Lily Kempson, a young fugitive who had fled Dublin after playing a significant role in the failed Easter Uprising. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married and had seven children. McAlerney continued his rail work through two world wars, retiring in the mid-1950s.
Our second serendipitous contributor, 96-year old Emil Martin (originally Martincevic), at an October book event in West Seattle, presented us with the identical photo and pointed out his father, Petar Martincevic. Petar arrived in Seattle in 1910 from Yugoslavia and began work as an air-brake mechanic in the coachyards. He died in 1964 at age 86.
As a boy, Emil came to know his father’s co-workers well. He says they were of “many nationalities, including Irish, Yugoslavian, Scandinavian, Italian, Belgian,” along with “an unusually large number of White Russians” who fled across Siberia following the 1917 Russian Revolution.
In the proud faces of these immigrant men (and a handful of women), many who left behind strife, political oppression and poverty, this Thanksgiving we salute their hope for better lives in a new world. For more photos and stories of the McAlerney and Martincevic families, please visit our blog at pauldorpat.com.