A World's Fair Viking Ship in Geneva, Illinois!

A World's Fair Viking Ship in Geneva, Illinois!
The "Viking" at the 1893 Columbian Exposition after sailing from Norway to Chicago

A Viking Ship in Geneva, Illinois!  Who would have thunk it?   I would be completely remiss if doing a series of articles on the relics of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition if I didn’t talk about what very well could be the largest remaining artifact of the Fair if you don’t count the Museum of Science and Industry or really Jackson Park itself.

 When Chicago won the highly debated contest between major U.S. cities to host what was to become “The White City”, all eyes were on the Italian sailor with Spanish financial backing who crossed the ocean blue in 1492.  All eyes that is unless yours were from one of the Scandinavian countries who had claimed that it was a Norseman and not an Italian who first stepped foot in “The New World”.  Not only did they make their “preposterous” claim of being first but claimed it was 500 years earlier!  In 1960, archaeological  evidence of an early Norse settlement in Newfoundland backed up their claim that the Norwegians had arrived before the Italians and Spaniards. 

 So while the Spanish government was creating replicas of Columbus’s ships to be pulled unceremoniously by tug boat to the Exposition in Chicago bearing the Italian Admiral’s name, the Norwegians were planning to construct an exact duplicate of an ancient Viking longship discovered in 1880 in Gokstad, Norway.   Not only were they intent on building it but they planned on actually sailing it 3,000 miles across the ocean to the exposition in Chicago!

 The Norwegian government was not keen on funding the project unless the boat was sent by steamer and not sailed and eventually a committee was formed and private funding of the project took place.  A member of the committee, sailor and newspaperman, Magnus Andersen would be her captain.  

 The ship was constructed in Framnaes Shipyard in Sandefjord and would be identical to that of the Gokstad ship.  The finished ship was 76.5 ft long, 17 ft wide and 6 ft in depth.  It was made of local Norwegian wood except for the keel which had to be imported from Canada due to the fact that there was no single piece of wood long enough in Norway.

 The ship was launched on February 4, 1893 and was christened simply Viking.  It was actually not built to the specifications of an ocean going vessel but to the smaller specifications of the coastal ship that was unearthed in Gokstad.  It had an elaborately carved black and gold dragon head and tail, a 20 foot wide, red and white striped, square sail, yellow and black shields along both sides and 32 oars.  It displayed an American flag at its bow, a flag of the union of Norway and Sweden at its stern, a red flag with a gold lion atop its mast and a red silk banner with a black raven that represented the raven flag of the ancient Vikings.

 Andersen chose a crew of 11 out of over 280 volunteers.  After a period of coastal visits the ship started its cross-Atlantic voyage from Bergen on April 30, 1893.  The ship survived some rough weather and was so sea-worthy in fact that many became very comfortable being aboard and even managed to sleep every once in a while in their deer skin sleeping bags.

 After 28 days at sea, the crew sighted the east coast of Newfoundland Canada at 3 a.m. on the 27th of May.  The ship received a scraping to remove the remnants of the salt water journey at Cape Race and it was on to the U.S.   The crew sighted the shores of Cape Cod Massachusetts on the 11th of June and harbored at their first U.S. port of call, New London, Connecticut.  On the 17th of June the Viking sailed into New York.  On the 18th of June they had just finished with festivities sponsored by the Norwegian Societies of New York in Brooklyn when they were attacked by a gang of thugs.  The police arrived and rather than arresting the aggressors they arrested the crew of the Viking still in their sailor uniforms!  This of course goes to show that it is impossible to be a sailor in New York and not get arrested! 

After an eventful visit to New York, the Viking was pulled by tug up the Hudson River until they reached Albany where they entered the Erie Canal en route to Buffalo and Lake Erie.

 The Erie Canal was so narrow at various points that there was only 6 inches of clearance between the ship and the sides of the canal.  It was also as shallow as 6 feet at times.  Luckily, the Viking was designed with a pointed end at both bow and stern which allowed it to go in either direction without turning around much like the design of a canoe!

 Since the canal was so narrow at points the oars and sails could not be used, the dragon head and tail had to be removed, the mast taken down and the ship had to be pulled by tug, horse or even by hand!  They had several close calls and had even collided with a tug boat between Amsterdam and Fultonville that through the Viking ashore.  The crew managed to save their ship, return it to the water and pull the ship by hand for three miles while leaving the sinking tug behind them.  Captain Andersen was overheard to say that he would rather cross the Atlantic a score of times than take another trip through the Erie Canal!

 A stop in Cleveland and Detroit, a trip across Lake St. Clair and Lake Huron, a stop in Milwaukee and then finally the Viking reached her Chicago destination on the 12th of July.  The Viking was met in Evanston by over 50 ships and escorted to a spot adjacent to the brick battleship “Illinois” near the north inlet to the fair. 

 Over 50,000 people had met the ship at the docks and the attendance at 135,000 was almost double the attendance the day before.  There was much fanfare!  Mayor Harrison and other Columbian Exposition dignitaries were on hand as well as Frederick Douglass himself.   It was a spectacular day and the crew of the Viking succeeded in helping to remove some of the doubt that Leif Erikson very well could have beaten Admiral Columbus to the New World by almost 500 years!

 After the fair, the Viking continued its tour of the New World by traveling to the Port of New Orleans and back and was eventually donated to the Field Columbian Museum.  It was presented to the museum on the 13th of October 1894.  Unfortunately the ship, which should be to this day preserved in a permanent museum, was left to decay, first in the lagoon to the south, and then beside what is now the Museum of Science and Industry.  Various groups undertook the task to restore and preserve the ship.  In 1919, it was the Viking Ship Committee formed by Norwegian women who restored and cared for it and had it was placed in Lincoln Park where it remained for 74 years.  As the years passed,  the ship was neglected.  In 1976, Archie Anderson, the head of the Norwegian National League started a restoration committee that managed to repaint the dragon head and tail, and had them displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry.  In 1979 this committee incorporated as the not for profit Viking Ship Restoration CommitteeIn 1987, the American Scandinavian Council was formed by William Carlson.In 1994, the Chicago Park District requested that the Viking ship be moved out of Lincoln Park. The American Scandinavian Council arranged to move the ship into storage until permanent housing for the ship could be found.  The ship was moved to Good Templar Park in Geneva, Illinois and is currently under the ownership and care of the non-profit "Friends of the Viking Ship" The Friends of the Viking ship recently consulted Gunnar Eldjarn, one of the world’s leading experts on Viking ships, for his assistance in the continued conservation of Viking.

 I had the opportunity to visit the ship last year with my family and it is an amazing sight to behold.  Not only is the ship itself impressive but the members and docents are a wealth of knowledge about the ship, its construction, its history and its restoration.  The ship is still in need of a permanent indoor home and its wood is in a constant state of decay due to the lack of ability to control the climate in which it is kept.

The "Viking" at its present home in Geneva, Illinois

The "Viking" at its present home in Geneva, Illinois

 The Viking ship is open for visitors from 1:00pm to 4:00pm on April 19, May 17, July 19, August 16 and September 20 in 2014 with June 15 being a day with extended hours and additional activities and fees.  Good Templar Park is located at 528 East Side Drive in Geneva, IL and more information can be found on their website:  http://www.vikingship.us

Another view showing the relatively close quarters that the crew of viking had during their 28 day crossing of the Atlantic.

Another view showing the relatively close quarters that the crew of viking had during their 28 day crossing of the Atlantic.

As part of their fundraising efforts you can also purchase the book, By Whale Road to The World’s Fair – A Viking Drakkar’s Adventures at the Columbian Exposition, by F.L. Watkins at their Geneva location during tour hours.  The book is a wonderful history of the ship and is also where the vast majority of the historic information for this article was obtained.


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