S.S. Walnut

A voyage to Freedom - 1948

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Into God's Hands

 A stormy sea -
the water 
looms endless -
cold and frigid;

We leave behind 
forever
those we have loved
things we have known;

All my possessions
in one small suitcase -
 memories 
are easy to pack;

What fate awaits us?

Together we came
with dread -
yet filled  with hope;

Into God's hands -
we placed our dreams
and our lives;

Deliver us all
from evil
Your kingdom come;

We thank You -
for this second chance
our lives anew.

Tiiu Roiser 
Dec. 2008

 

 

 

The Walnut Voyage Story 

The headlines of the newspapers around the world in 1948 read as follows:  "Halifax Opens Heart to 350 Refugees Who Fled Russian Domination in Tiny Converted Minesweeper"  and "Refugee Laden Walnut Reaches Halifax".  

 

What prompted this dangerous journey to Canada 60 years ago?  

 

World War II

World War II had ended and many Estonians had escaped to Sweden.  This, however, did not seem far enough away from the Russians who had taken over their country.  The Russian government wanted the people, whom it considered its citizens, back.  It was demanding the return of refugees who had fled to Sweden.  One Walnut spokesman stated that the political trend in Sweden made it advisable to leave the country because the Swedish government had handed 140 Estonians back to the Russians.

Some Walnut passengers had spent time in Russian concentration camps.  “A man cannot even talk unchecked to his best friend,” explained chief mate Arvid Berendson, an Estonian seaman.  Captain Linde related that a sister, who was a harmless housewife, was taken to a Siberian camp and had not been heard from since.  “With my own eyes I saw things happen to my countrymen that you would only believe if you saw it yourself,” he said.  He remembered how his old navigation teacher at the merchant naval college had been tortured by the Russians.  Victims had their limbs broken and were lowered into a sixty foot well.  “They were drowned ‘like rats'”, he said.

The refugees had watched in horror as fellow Estonians were dragged from Sweden crying, into boats and back to the Soviet Union.  Rather than face the same fate, they decided to flee -- to Canada.   They began looking toward the other side of the ocean. 

 

Purchase of Ship

S.S. WalnutIt was Alexander Kalbus who began soliciting funds for the purchase of a boat with which to escape to Canada.  It was nearly impossible to purchase a decent ship for the ocean voyage.  He found, however, the S.S. Walnut.  Built originally in England as a Royal Navy minesweeper in 1939, she was now up for sail by a Swedish company which had converted her into a cargo ship.  She had an overall length of 164 feet and a width of 28 feet.  With retrofitting, would she be able to carry a human cargo to freedom?

A co-operative was formed to get together the monies necessary for the purchase.  Known as the Compania Maritima Walnut S.A., shares of the ship were sold as well as adult and child fares. The ship was found to be seaworthy and purchased for a price of 225,000 kr. -- $63,000.

A very tight sqeeze in the sleeping quarters.It took three months to refit the Walnut for her voyage to the new world.  Originally designed for a crew of 18, the Walnut was being prepared to give passage to over 300 individuals.  So crowded was she with her human cargo, that the interior resembled a honeycomb.  Bunks were stacked 24 x 24" and in some cases three high with very little room to move.  Koidula Roiser recalls that she and her husband slept with their backs to each other and their knees wedged against the walls to try to prevent rolling with the waves.  Every inch of space was utilized for accommodation in order that as many people as possible could make the voyage.

 

Secrecy was Imperative

Confidential letters were sent to passengers indicating what they were allowed to bring and where to they were to meet.  It was imperative that they drew little attention to their preparations.

All ages were aboard the ship.Ultimately, there were 347 passengers who boarded the Walnut for their voyage to freedom.  They ranged in age from nine months to 80 years and were composed of eight different ethnicities.  All knew that they faced illegal entry into Canada.

Left:  Many ethnicities were aboard the Walnut.  The great majority were Estonian.

To ensure secrecy, the ship was moved from Göteborg to Lysekil.   Even here, her departure was in jeopardy.  There weren’t enough life preservers.  60 passengers were told to get off the ship.  Customs officers and police asked all to get off and re-board using a shorter passenger list. 

A view from the ship of those left behind.During re-boarding, an urgent telegram arrived for port officials from the Russian authorities – the boarding was to stop immediately!   The Swedish port officials suspected what the telegram said and decided to open it AFTER the Walnut had sailed.  

Right:  Those left behind at Lysekil.

Missing People?

What happened to the missing 60 people?  Some newspapers wrote articles saying that they suspected they had gone to international waters and met up with the ship there.  This supposition was incorrect.  But no, they were not left behind --  they had been hidden --  sealed in a room in the bottom of the ship.  The Swedish port authorities had decided to turn a blind eye to room behind the pile of suitcases – the room they knew was there – but purposely decided NOT to investigate.  

In a 1966 article in the Toronto Estonian community newspaper "Meie Elu", a Walnut passenger thanks the port authorities.  He explains that both the police and the port authorities knew of our intent to hide the extra people.  They did not trust each other and both separately gave us a warning concerning the other.  Both knew we had stowed away the extra people and turned a blind eye.   "I sincerely thank, herein, the friendly Swedish authorities."

 

The Voyage Begins

On November 17th, 1948, the vessel traveled from Sweden, through the North Sea, to the West of Ireland before the oceanic journey began.  We sailed north of Scotland through the North Sea to avoid the Russians, whom we suspected were attempting to re-capture us, stated the skipper of the Walnut."  

The voyage was met immediately with strong winter storms.  What have been described by passengers as monstrous, ocean waves crashed over the decks and washed away the reserve coal.  The next morning, only a few passengers partook of the breakfast coffee -- all the rest were too seasick to leave their bunks.   Koidula Roiser and Nelly Lind both state that they were completely bedridden during the entire voyage.  Nelly had two young sons aboard who were running around the decks and in and out of the coal storages -- she was unable to look after them -- she was so sick. 

Hard at work in the engine room.Trouble with the ship’s pumps resulted in three feet of water laying in the hold.  Another foot of cold ocean water hitting hot boilers would have spelled disaster for all on board.  With high waves crashing around them, men held on for their lives and bailed water.  Someone came up with the idea of using fat to seal the deck openings thus sealing the openings and keeping out the water.  

Right:  The crew at work in the engine room.
Below left:  Passengers in Sligo.

 

Disembarking in Sligo, Ireland.The route of the voyage took them North of Scotland through the Orkney canal.  They turned toward Northern Ireland and put in to the port of Sligo to pick up more coal.  The ship remained here for four days. This was the end of their Walnut voyage for four passengers who disembarked at Sligo.   A marine engineer and his wife left the ship and berthed on a British ship to sail to Australia because they had Australian visas.  One Finnish woman, married to an Estonian, became gravely ill with appendicitis and was taken by the Red Cross to hospital for surgery.  The Red Cross promised to send the patient to Canada upon her recovery.  The Captain himself put a German passenger off the ship because he didn’t trust him.  

The arrival of the Walnut caused quite a sensation for the residents of the small Irish town.  All passengers remember their hosts as being very hospitable and friendly.  The refugees were invited into homes for meals and baths.  Food was brought onboard for the passengers and treats given to the children.  Doctor Murphy of the Red Cross provided medical supplies.  Being sympathetic to their plight, the local police allowed all passengers to disembark without checking passports.  

Blessings from three priests.Prior to resuming the voyage, three local priests conducted religious services at the pier.  They blessed the ship and spiritually prepared the passengers for the difficult and dangerous voyage they were about to undertake.  The promised to pray for each soul during the next few days so that they might have a safe journey.

Right:  Three local priests in Sligo blessed the ship and passengers

 

Crossing the Atlantic

A rare calm sea day.And so, the dangerous Atlantic crossing began.  There were sunny days, but many more stormy ones.  Many perils awaited the Walnut on her long voyage.  Stormy winter ocean waves washed over the deck of the tiny ship forcing passengers to cling to the railings or be washed overboard.  With the number on board, the number of children, how no-one was lost to the sea -- is a wonder.   Only two other ships were spotted during the voyage.  The radio mast had broken during the storms and the Walnut was only able to receive radio signals, but not able to respond to them.  At one point, the Canadian air force signaled that they were off course and needed to turn south.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity – seasick, suffering and hungry, the passengers spotted a strip of land off in the distance.  It was the land they longed for and dreamed of – the saw Canada.  

The Walnut first arrived in Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Immigration officials came on board, but decided to have the shipload of passengers disembark at Halifax because the facilities there were better.  The first passengers to step ashore on December 13th, were the Captain August Linde, his wife Hilda and their two small daughters Heili, aged 11, and Luule, aged 7.  All in all, including their stop in Ireland, the voyage had lasted a month.

One passenger recalls how sweet the Canadian bread tasted after eating the molding bread that they'd had on board.

 

Gateway to Canada

The refugees found themselves at Pier 21 -- now called the "Gateway to Canada".  Over 1.5 million immigrants and Canadian military personnel have passed through these doors.

Awaiting their fate in Pier 21.Immigration authorities at Pier 21 placed the passengers in Immigration Detention Quarters and at Rock Head Hospital – all were carefully screened and interviewed.  Some reports indicate that only the Captain and his family had visas to Canada, other reports indicate that there were visas for 15.  It was estimated that it would take six weeks time to screen all candidates for citizenship.  Ultimately, of all the passengers, only two were refused entry - one tailor and one shoemaker. 

Right:  Walnut passengers await their fate at Pier 21 in Halifax

The Walnut voyage changed the views of immigration officials.  As a result of the Walnut's voyage and arrival, a special immigration officer was sent to Sweden and the doors for legal immigration were opened.

The voyage had been dangerous and uncomfortable – but no one had expected comfort.  All they wanted was to get across the sea – to safety.  This brave group of immigrants would have put up with anything to get to a free homeland.  One immigration officer told a Walnut passenger, “You came to a good country – there is room for you here.”

How the Walnut carried its human cargo – so much greater than it had ever been designed to accommodate  -- is still a wonder.  The only answer – God had a plan and was looking out for these people. 

Compiled by Tiiu Roiser-Chorowiec based on newspaper articles and first hand passenger accounts. 

 

The English translation of the following original newspaper article is not a verbatim exact duplications 
of the Estonian text, but rather a very close English version of the original.  

Note also, that translated newspaper articles from various sources appeared both shortly after the Walnut voyage
 and were also written many years later.  Many news articles contain factual inaccuracies, but are presented 
herein  as published and written by their authors.  

"Onboard the Viking Ship Over the Atlantic"



Originally published in the Estonian community newspaper „Vaba Eestlane“. 
Although undated, it can be estimated to have been written approx. Sept. or Oct. of 1978
Photographs have been added by the webmaster and were not part of the original article.

It has now been 30 years since 347 Estonian refugees arrived in Canada aboard the old steamship "Walnut" in the fall of 1948.  The majority has forgotten this voyage, however, those who participated will recall it vividly for the rest of their lives. 

The events prior to the "Walnut's" voyage and its difficult journey across the North Sea and Atlantic has been documented based on memory and his diary by Toronto resident and artist Joann (John) Saarniit, who's detailed article we present for "Vaba Eestlane" readers:

The reasons to leave Sweden for overseas were many, the most critical were, however, to achieve for political refugees a stable fate for the future.  This included also the Berlin blockade, talk of war, counter political news, the continuous breaking of Russian agreements, the gathering of large armies in occupied territories, KGB agent activities in Sweden, the mysterious disappearances of some Estonians, the handing over of Estonian soldiers to the Russians and the large refugee exodus from Sweden to the American continent.  The days began and ended with a feeling of insecurity, fear and horrible stories, in addition to many Estonians receiving negative responses from the Canadian consulate regarding emigration to Canada.    The psychosis to leave only grew.  The Viking ships "Erna", "Atlanta", "Österväg" and others had, although with difficulty, successfully crossed the Atlantic and the refugees had been accepted in the United States and Canada despite arriving illegally. 

 

Stories about the steel ship Walnut

Walnut9.jpg (81004 bytes)Stories about the steel ship Walnut were quickly disseminated during 1948, especially among those Estonians whose hopes of traveling legally to Canada had been destroyed. The WWII, 700 ton minesweeper "Walnut" was for sale for 250,000 Swedish kr. ($63,000. Cdn.).  If 250 passengers could be found, it could be conceivable to purchase this ship and accommodate her to transport these people.

On the 10th of September, 1948, an organization was formed in Göteborg to purchase the ship, the administration of which was elected:  A. Kalbus, H. Suursööt, V. Vares ja Captain  A. Linde.  The conditions for the purchase of the ship were acceptable, since if enough money had not been gathered for the purchase, the deposit would have been returned.  It was necessary to act quickly and organize fellow passengers, in order to meet the deadline of the purchase agreement.  Despite the fact that during the war, the Walnut was designed to house 80 seamen, it was now necessary to consider how to accommodate four times the passengers.   Passengers knew ahead of time, that during the voyage, there would be no conveniences, including no bathing facilities.  Despite this, passengers were prepared to pay 250 dollars per adult and 150 for children (calculated according to 1948 dollar values).  

 

Many hundred sleeping bunks in the minesweeper

Walnut passengers in their bunks.Despite not having all the necessary funds, the remodeling of the interior rooms began immediately. Based on a cell-like structure and built from planks, narrow bunks with dividing walls were built, into which one could squeeze via a 24 x 24 inch opening.  By September 16th, 150,000 kr. had been collected, 100,000 more was needed.   The slow accumulation of funds was due to the poor state of the ship. All ages were aboard.

On the 18th of September in Stockholm the ship's administration held a meeting at which luckily, 50 more passengers were added.  On the 19th, the administration advised that 225,000 kr. have been forwarded to the sellers of the ship in England.  For shares, it is still necessary to procure and additional 500 kr., which it is hoped to get from the sale of the ship at our destination.  Unfortunately, I don't have the information concerning how many shares were sold and how much money was collected through their sale.  

It was decided that the "Walnut" would depart at the end of October.  The interim waiting period was spent liquidating assets acquired in Sweden and procuring necessary supplies for the unusual and long voyage.   No-one really knew what to bring and what was needed in Canada -- or, if the ship would even make it that far?!

 

Warnings prior to departure 

On September 23rd, an article appeared in the Swedish newspaper "Expressen" advising of Captain  E. Pasti's ship's arrival in Canada.  It also mentioned that the passengers had been given asylum.   It was also advised that 21 Finns had perished in a violent Atlantic storm, which caused many "Walnut" passengers to think.  In the Swedish newspaper "Stockholms Tidningen" the Canadian embassy sent a message warning against illegal passage to Canada.  Warnings appeared also from  A. Reil, J. Poska, H. Lareteil and others.  Articles appeared about the "Walnut" which said that this ship would not withstand the ocean's strong waves.  

With the energetic instigator [of the voyage] H. Suursööt's leadership, many difficulties were resolved, including currency exchanges to Canada if anyone still had anything left after purchasing a passage. The ship's insurance and registration was difficult, since insurance demanded two-thirds of the purchase price as guarantee.  The problem was solved by an Estonian individual knowledgeable in shipping, who obtained a Honduras registry and insurance.  Later in Canada, it became clear that the Honduras government did not know anything about the "Walnut".  

 

Under great secrecy to Lysekil

October was a worrisome month for the "Walnut" passengers.  The ship's departure date was kept secret and the passenger tension grew continuously.   On October 20th a registered letter arrived from the ship's administration with instructions, however, the sailing date was not mentioned. 

Docked in Göteborg.Privately I received a letter which spoke about disagreements among the administration.  It mentioned that the ship's boiler had been emptied of steam.    On October 27th, the first snow appeared on the shores of Sweden.  It would be insanity to go to sea with such weather -- was the opinion of many.  At the end of October a meeting was arranged in Göteborg where the ship's organization "Lennuk" [translated as "airplane" but perhaps meaning "flight"] was officially changed to the Compania Maritima S.S. Walnut.

Right:  The Walnut, docked in Göteborg - Nov. 12, 1948.

Last views of Lysekil.On November 12th a letter arrived from H.  Suursööt which gave instructions that passengers needed to gather by November 13th to the port of the small Swedish town Lysekil, where the visually pitiful and rusty "Walnut" indifferently awaited its passengers.  It became apparent that instead of 250 people, 347 arrived for passage.   The passports of all travelers were collected and given to the police authorities for control.  Although the Swedish control searched the ship completely, they did not find those "rabbits" [meaning stowaways in hiding]  hidden in the coal bunkers, who numbered 30.  At exactly 3 p.m. on Farewell Sweden. November 17th the Swedish pilot boat arrived and the difficult journey towards an unknown future began.  The passengers sang "Du gamla du fria" and "Mu isamaa mu õnn ja rõõm" [Estonian anthem].   Many cried openly, the faces of others betrayed their fear and distress.

 

Top left and right:  Last views of Lysekil, Sweden.

We are on the North Sea - destination Ireland

Soon we were on the tumultuous open sea.  The wind whistled in the ship's masts, which became continuously stronger.  Many people soon became seasick.  Norway's high seashore faded into the fog.  We were on the North Sea and our destination was Ireland. 

On November 19th the storm swelled to 11 gale force winds.  Eighty percent of the passengers are seasick.  The "Walnut" is moving ahead only one mile per hour.  Soon it is apparent, that the ship is leaking.  The pumps cease to work and the coal bunkers fill with water.  The pumps bearings have burnt out and the men work throughout the night, to carry with milk containers [buckets] the water gathering in the bottom to the top deck and throw it out to sea.  The bearings were repaired at the last minute, since the water threatened the boiler.

Soon the "Walnut" suffered another problem -- the radio transmission antenna  broke and was not fixable the entire voyage due to a lack of parts.  The "Walnut" traveled the sea like a "pirate ship".  We received from passing ships welcome signals, but it was not possible for us to signal back and explain where this old rusted ship with its huge passenger load was going.

 

The waves washed off the deck our reserve coal.

Crowded decks.The stench in the ship's rooms was appalling.  The "Walnut", with it's moaning and lamenting passengers was like some kind of "sinners" ship.  Coming out onto the deck was very dangerous since the large waves threatened to wash overboard those passengers not acquainted with the sea.  The North sea cross waves rocked the small ship so severely that 200 tons of reserve coal disappeared into the waves.

Left:  Crowded decks

On November 20th, the "Walnut" approached England's northern islands, keeping 20 miles from shore in order to avoid hijacking by the British, which apparently had occurred on several occasions during 1944 inside their waters. 

On November 21st it becomes clear that the boiler's fan is broken and the ship is moving with much difficulty.  The passengers are becoming upset over rumors that the "Walnut's" administration needs additional funds to purchase coal from Ireland, since more coal was consumed than expected on the North Sea due to the rough seas.   The situation was resolved amongst the shareholders who themselves paid more funds, the organization of which it was rumored to have been V. Vares.

Disembarking in Ireland.The pilot boat from northern Ireland arrived on November 25th. The pilot wanted to bring the ship to Sligo harbour along the river, however, because the water was low, this was not possible and we waited at the pier until the next day.   On the 24th of November the harbour police chief allowed people to disembark, the opportunity of which was generously used, foremost to search for bathing opportunities.  It became clear that the town's only hotel charged $1 for half a tub of water and this was suppose to be sufficient for three people.  Sligo had never heard of a sauna, although every third house sold alcohol.  The streets were not lit and everything appeared poor and shabby. 

Right:  Passengers disembark  at Sligo.

 

We give away the lifeboats. 

We stopped in this harbour for a few days to repair mechanical damages and to load coal.  During this time the "Walnut" passengers left a fairly sizeable amount of money on the town's restaurant counters.   Some ill passengers did not continue on the voyage and had to be sent to the local hospital.  Later, they arrived in Canada courtesy of the Irish government. 

Bringing on cargo.On November 25th the "Walnut" administration gifted the Irish with two twenty foot cylindrical, metal lifeboats which were unnecessary cargo.   It was calculated that these boats could not accommodate 347 people anyway and, therefore, it is correct to go on the ocean without all sorts of lifesaving means.   [Editorial note:  The author is referring to circular, raft-type lifeboats -- not all lifeboats were abandoned, just the circular ones at the front of the ship.]

Left:  Taking on necessities at Sligo.

On November 27th, prior to leaving the harbour, the local priest blessed the ship.  Again, the passengers and those sending them off had tears in their eyes.   The 28th of November saw gale force winds of 12 -- cold and stormy.   Strong waves rocked recklessly the little ship and again swept away the reserve coal on deck.   The stormy days persisted, however, by the beginning of December we had reached the middle of the Atlantic.   We still needed to travel half way until we would reach Halifax harbour.  The "Walnut" traveled 8 to 9 knots per hour, however, the barometer dropped continuously.  The majority of the passengers were seasick and the cook's, E. Potsep's, food was thrown overboard to the fish.  Local priests gave blessings to the ship and passengers.

The storm raged almost a week and the radio did not foresee anything better for the next days.   It was cold on the ship and sleeping on the wooden blank beds was like being on the rack.   Due to the huge waves, the "Walnut" often moved only 4 knots per hour.   Finally, after almost a month of churning, the foggy shore of Newfoundland began to appear.   However, this is not where we planned to land and we continued our journey.  Canadian air force planes flew low over our ship exhausted from the storm waves, and signaled that we had lost our course and needed to turn south. 

Our first stop in Canada was in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the Canadian government supplemented our coal free of charge.   Generous Canadians brought onboard a multitude of gifts -- food stuffs, clothing and sweets.   The local newspapers already knew about the refugee boat that was coming and they wrote and talked about us a lot.  The radio stations talked about the "Northern Vikings" who had arrived through the winter storm over the Atlantic narrowly escaping the hurricane which just shortly befell the huge ocean liner "Queen Elizabeth". 

Finally, on the 13th of December, the "Walnut's" ropes are secured to the posts on the Halifax pier.  The passengers leave the ship, the men and the women are separated.  Authorities disinfect the putrid rooms of the ship.  The Canadian government had already received the letter mailed by the passengers from Sweden requesting asylum for the refugees.  The letter had been signed by  A. Kalbus, A. Linde, Helmi Suursöö ja artist Joann Saarniit.  Each passenger was interviewed separately, but were not asked where they came from, but rather, where they planned to go. 

 

Christmas and New Year in the Quarantine 

Their first Christmas in Canada.On December 17th the passengers were housed at the Rock Head Hospital's WWII injured soldier residences.  During quarantine, the single passengers were given dormitories, families received private rooms.   The passengers spent their time in meetings reviewing events, playing cards, entertainment evenings and even a dance party.  The refugees were interviewed by newspaper representatives who were especially interested why we specifically picked for our new home Canada.  One Halifax newspaper published almost an entire page of Joann Saarniit's paintings of anticommunism and wrote, according to his facts, about life in Siberia.   

New Year's Eve celebrations.The 22nd of December saw the beginning of Christmas preparations.  For this occasion the residence hall was decorated especially festively.  A local Baptist minister held a Christmas sermon in German.  There was a Santa Claus and an exchange of Christmas gifts.  Greetings were sent by E. Juudas, E.W. Saks and A. Weiler.  If Christmas Eve was celebrated relatively conservatively, then on New Year's Eve, the people were more merry and able to somewhat forget the tossing of their Atlantic voyage'.   A masquerade was organized which lasted almost till morning.  This was understandable, since the average age of the "Walnut" passengers was only thirty.   The passengers, however, did not spend all their time partying, but began an energetic study of the English language, taught by some English speaking passengers.

 

The "Walnut" was sold and sunk. 

The "Walnut" was abandoned in the harbour and put up for sale.  The price was $40,000, but at that price, no-one was interested.  Rumour had it that the ship was finally sold for $5,000 and soon thereafter sunk.  [Editorial note:  Please see "Ship Statistics" concerning disposition of ship.

Living in the Rock Head residence lasted two months.  The last of the refugees -- 60 in all -- left the residence on February 15th, 1949 and proceeded to scatter in all directions, the majority of which to Ontario's large city of Toronto. 

It is now thirty years since the "Walnut's" risky voyage and the third generation is hearing from their grandfathers and grandmothers the specifics about this unconventional and dangerous voyage.  All the names of the "Walnut" passengers are on record in an illustrated album which was sent to Ottawa on February 14th, 1949.    

The "Walnut" passengers can supplement this article [with their memories], the opportunity for which will be available at the upcoming reunion at the Estonian House on October 27th [1978].

 


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