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William H. Peterson Papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Peterson

Scope and Content of the Collection

Contains correspondence, newspaper clippings, personal material, genealogical research, and photographs for William H. Peterson and the Peterson family, whose members were employed by the Pullman Company for several generations. Correspondence includes World War II letters detailing military and domestic life, correspondence ca. 1910 in Swedish to William H. Peterson's paternal grandmother, and a 1930 letter from Peterson’s uncle Waldemar describing in great detail the sudden death of his wife from spinal meningitis. Other material includes Pullman employee reviews and publications dating to 1893, pictorial books from Chicago’s 1893 and 1934 World’s Fairs, engineer designs for Pullman, and official documents like birth certificates. Photographs document a variety of subjects, such as World War I training, school and confirmation class photos, and early twentieth-century social events.

Additionally, William H. Peterson’s daughter, Karla Hanley, assembled booklets with the personal biographies and family histories of her father and both his parents, Hartin Peterson and Martha Johnson Peterson. She also wrote up biographies and genealogy for her husband’s parents, Robert Hanley and Genevieve Kotula Hanley. They are both of Polish descent and grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.


  • Creation: 1891-2012



Materials are in English and Swedish.

Conditions Governing Access

The William H. Peterson Papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The William H. Peterson Papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections.

Biography of William H. Peterson

Chicago engineer at the Pullman Company.

William Hartin Peterson was the first son of Hartin F. and Martha Johnson Peterson. Hartin was born in 1892 to Swedish parents who had immigrated to the United States and were employed at Pullman. Hartin served in the Navy during World War I and returned to become a draftsman at Pullman, working on the design of passenger car air-conditioning systems. In 1919, Hartin married fellow Pullman employee Martha Johnson, also a child of Swedish immigrants who worked for Pullman. Martha, born in 1895, was the third of Alfred and Elin Johnson’s seven surviving children. Martha was very devout and an active member in her church, while Hartin chose instead to affiliate with the Mason Brotherhood. Martha was a doting mother, as her wartime letters to William indicate.

Born in 1921, William showed an early interest in science, and after graduating high school he got a job at Pullman Car Works. In 1942, Peterson enlisted in the Navy where he served as a radar man on the U.S.S. Arkansas. The ship was deployed to the Atlantic and participated in the Normandy invasion and fighting off the coast of Cherbourg. After the war, Peterson married nurse Ingrid Nelson in 1946, with whom he had two daughters, and in 1947 completed an engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Peterson returned to Pullman where he patented 60 designs during his career. In 1987 he received the Arnold Stucki Award for mechanical engineering in the field of railroad transportation. He died in Chicago in 2008.

Through the marriage of William's daughter Karla Hanley, the histories of her parents-in-law Robert Hanley and Genevieve Kotula Hanley are included in this collection. Robert, born in 1923, received the name Hanley from his Irish grandfather, and the rest of his family was of Polish descent. Robert was the oldest child of Walter Hanley and Helen Cybulski, both of whom grew up in poverty in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport. The Hanley family was hard-hit by the Depression, so Robert worked odd jobs while attending school and joined the Navy in 1942 as an electrician. His LST ship participated in the landings at Peleliu and Okinawa. Back home, Robert married Genevieve ("Gene") Kotula in 1946. Born in 1923 as the eighth of eleven children, Gene was also raised in a working-class Polish family in Bridgeport, where her father was employed by ACME Steel. Both Robert and Gene provide vivid details of their experiences in Bridgeport and during the war. Robert and Gene's son Scott married Karla Peterson in 1980.


2.6 Linear Feet (4 boxes, 1 oversize box)


Correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs, and personal material of William H. Peterson, a World War II radar man and later engineer for the Pullman Company. Includes Peterson's schoolwork, wartime letters, and engineering designs. There is additional material for the Peterson family, including William's father Hartin F. Peterson, also a Pullman employee, such as his World War I photographs and his own draft work. Collection also contains genealogy and photographs of the Swedish-American Peterson and Johnson families, as well as the Polish-American Hanley and Kotula families. There are also pictorial books and souvenirs from the 1893 and 1934 Chicago World’s Fairs.


Papers are organized in the following series

Series 1: Correspondence, 1908-1987
Box 1
Series 2: Occupation, 1893-1979
Box 1
Series 3: Personal, 1892-2012
Boxes 1-3
Series 4: Photographs, approximately 1891-1997
Boxes 3-4

Collection Stack Location

1 27 2


Gift, Karla G. Hanley, 2004, 2008.

Processed by

Emma Reynolds, 2010.


This inventory was created with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this inventory do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Inventory of the William H. Peterson Papers, 1891-2008
Emma Reynolds
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States