Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From Germany to the Pacific Northwest

Sylvia Plath's story is so New England that links to the Pacific Northwest seem sort of odd. A true Bostonian, she saw England and France before venturing west of the Hudson. In 1910 her future dad Otto Plath left Wisconsin for grad school in Seattle despite universities aplenty nearer by and out east. Otto's classmate inspired his move to Seattle, where in 1912 he got a master's degree and his first teaching job and first wife. But I think it mattered too that Otto's parents and three brothers were already in the Pacific Northwest. 

Although Otto's grandfather disowned him, his family stayed in touch and asked him whether he'd take in his sickly brother Paul. Otto said no.

Otto had been getting kid-glove fine schooling while his family came from Prussia straight to the North Dakota plains where Otto's blacksmith uncle had prospered. After eight lean years, the Plaths in 1910 joined the rootless hundreds of thousands picturing the far-western forests they could mill, mountains to mine, ocean to harvest, friendly neighbors and homesteading land purged of natives. And some good universities. The Northern Pacific Railway made it easier to migrate west than north or south -- and easy to go back if anyone had to.

The railroad further baited its hook with discount ticket prices for passengers going west to the end of the line.

The Plaths like every family in the Northwest labored at lumber mills, paper mills, smithing, shipping, repair shops, contracting, and farming. This map helped me understand why they chose the Pacific Northwest, where some of their descendants still live.

Northern Pacific Railway, 1910. Otto would have got aboard at St. Paul.

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