Its 120-year history is as tumultuous as the 30-hour gale that greeted it on the Atlantic Ocean. Chris Linden traces the exceptional story of this historic treasure and the effort to preserve its history.
For nearly 75 years, an old Viking ship sat under a shelter in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, collecting pigeon droppings and providing a playground for children. Those youngsters had little idea that, in 1893, this boat had successfully sailed from Norway to Chicago. And they had no idea that its voyage helped to rewrite the story of Christopher Columbus’ journey to America.
Lorraine Straw has no recollection of her parents taking her to the ship as a small child. In the late 2000s, when she saw the boat as an adult in the suburb of Geneva, she saw a distressed relic, calling for help.
“It had twisted and sagged and looked really in distress,” says Straw. “When I compared it to pictures I’d seen from the 1970s, I’d just about cried because poor support had taken its toll.”
It was 11 inches “out of true.” Its rivets were rusted and some adornments were missing. The Viking ship seemed once again destined for the scrap heap of history. But some, like Straw, wouldn’t let that happen.
Today, beneath a shelter in Geneva’s Good Templar Park, sits that old replica of a Viking ship. Its wood is cracking; there’s a water line around its hull, where it once skimmed the ocean. In its 120-year lifetime, this boat has been celebrated, forgotten and revived, yet its stories have continually inspired Chicago’s Scandinavian descendants.
That pride inspired Straw and others to found the Friends of the Viking Ship (FOVS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to its preservation and display. Those who are tied to this ship see a higher purpose.
“I believe it can be used as a teaching tool, to teach geography, the inland waterways of North America, conservation,” says Straw. “And, it can be used for teaching the discovery of America. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s gorgeous.”
And, it bears an incredible story.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. But Norwegians had always believed that their ancestors reached America first.
As with most ancient civilizations, the Vikings were oral historians, passing down the stories of their people verbally, from generation to generation. It wasn’t until 300 years after their discoveries that the tales were written.
These “sagas,” as they were called, told of Viking discoveries throughout Europe and Iceland. They also told of the discovery of America, including Leif Eriksson’s encounters with Native Americans.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, the sagas don’t have any relevance whatsoever, because it’s all been rewritten 200 or 300 years later,’” says F.L. Watkins, a medieval re-enactor who’s extensively researched the Viking ship. “But there’s a kernel of truth in all of these stories. Academics are starting to see that’s how it is.”
However, in 1893, nobody had yet discovered evidence of Viking settlements in North America. So, while the U.S. planned its grand Columbus celebration, an idea emerged in Norway to prove the old Viking stories.
Little was known then about the appearance and operation of Viking watercraft, but there was a reliable model. In 1880, the sons of a Norwegian farmer had discovered a well-preserved Viking ship hidden inside an ancient burial mound in one of their fields. The Gokstad, named after the farm where it was found, became a national treasure.
“Norway said it was too important to history and too fragile to send [to the Columbian Exposition],” says Straw. “The government refused to send it, but Magnus Andersen had this idea to build a replica, because he’d heard that Spain was preparing to make replicas of the caravels – the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.”
Andersen was a maverick Norwegian sea captain and newspaper publisher. He lobbied for small donations from schoolchildren, sailors and others to fund a working replica of the Gokstad.
Under great secrecy, Andersen’s ship was constructed using Viking techniques. Made of black oak harvested in Norway, the boat was 78 feet long, 17 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep. On each side, it had 16 oar holes. The keel, made from a single piece of timber, was so large that it had to be imported from Canada. Even the planks are constructed in ancient fashion.
“The planks are called strakes, and they were overlapped to keep the water out,” says Margaret Selakovich, an FOVS board member who today tours visitors around the boat. “Then, they stuffed it with a certain kind of wool between the strakes, and they used rivets to hold it all together.”
About 280 sailors applied to join Andersen’s voyage; only 11 were selected. On April 30, 1893, the newly christened Viking began what many thought was a suicide mission.
As an historian and Viking re-enactor, Andrew Woods is fascinated with the living history surrounding this ship. When schoolchildren and sightseers visit it, he dons a Viking costume, including a helmet and chain mail, and demonstrates Viking life.
In his day job, as research historian at Cantigny Park’s First Division Museum in Wheaton, Woods is more accustomed to reading history than touching it. As a child and an adult, he’s pored over the sagas and stories of his ancient Norwegian and Scottish family members. Now, as a member of the FOVS board, he wants to preserve the incredible stories told through the Viking.
“Think about contemporary ships – the Titanic,” he laughs. “Nobody knew. They didn’t know if [the voyage would] be successful.”
But it was.
On July 12, the Viking proudly cruised into Chicago’s Jackson Park, site of the World’s Columbian Exposition. We know about the journey today, thanks to Andersen’s books and an account written by a crew member named Rasmussen. Both Straw and Watkins have read translations.
Early on its North Atlantic voyage, the Viking hit its first obstacle: a 30-hour gale. “Nothing came in between the strakes,” says Straw, “but there was enough rain coming down and waves pouring over the sides that they were frantically bailing water out of the boat.”
It was smooth sailing from there, and when the ship reached New York Harbor on June 18, Andersen remarked, “A better ship is not afloat on salt water.”
Shoreline observers and crews on large modern ships marveled at the tiny Viking. But one evening in Brooklyn, the crew members were attacked by a group of thugs and arrested for brawling.
Ten days after arriving in New York, the Viking entered the Erie Canal. The passage was so narrow and bridges so low that the crew lowered the mast, removed the bright yellow dragon head and tail from the bow and stern, and padded the sides of the ship with blankets.
“There was a collision [with another vessel] when they were in the Erie Canal,” says FOVS’ Selakovich. “The steering board does have a crack in it, because of the collision. The surprising thing is that the Viking ship prevailed and the tug boat sank.”
The Viking proved its true prowess upon the Great Lakes.
“The United States government insisted they have a tugboat,” says Watkins. “Many times, they would dismantle from the tugboat and they would distance themselves so much that they’d have to wait for the tugboat to catch up.”
The ship stopped in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Racine and Evanston before cruising into Chicago on July 12, about a week after the Columbus replicas arrived. Unlike The Viking, the “caravels” were towed across the ocean.
Somewhere in the 1970s, someone dubbed it “The Raven.” Its original shields, hand-forged chain and other pieces had disappeared. Other items had been safely hidden inside Chicago-area museums. Like the Norse sagas, the Viking lived on mostly in memory.
Straw’s curiosity about the ship began in the early 2000s, around the time she became a delegate to the Norwegian National League. When a local publication shared the wrong history about the ship, it was Straw’s job to correct the record. The more she researched the ship’s history, the more engrossed she became. She tracked through local history, eventually finding a Chicago woman’s notes and photographs, stored inside a Norwegian museum in Iowa.
Straw soon discovered that Chicago’s Scandinavian population has repeatedly saved the ship.
After the World’s Fair closed in October 1893, the boat sailed through canals and rivers to New Orleans. It was later towed back to Chicago and given to the new Field Columbian Museum, a Jackson Park building meant to preserve the Fair’s history.
The boat spent several years there in the lagoon, along with the caravels. Eventually, the Viking was dry-docked; the caravels all burned or sank. Just before the Field Museum re-opened in Grant Park in 1921, a Norwegian women’s group repaired and moved the boat to Lincoln Park. While it was sheltered there over the next seven decades, various Scandinavian groups attempted to save – and eventually abandoned – the ship.
Expansion plans at the Lincoln Park Zoo forced the boat to move in 1994, this time to an industrial yard in West Chicago. Two years later, when that West Chicago business was sold, Swedes in nearby Geneva took an interest, understanding that a Scandinavian group intended to build a Chicago museum for the ship. In 2001, the Scandinavian group dissolved.
“The Good Templar Park board said they would take the ship until arrangements could be made for more favorable conditions,” says Patricia Hanson, an FOVS board member who also is a 42-year member of the Good Templar organization. She and son Craig helped to bring the ship to its current “port.”
Hanson’s home abuts the park, and her family owns several summer cabins inside.
“[The ship] is a big part of our history,” she says. “When it was sailed to the Columbian Exposition, Scandinavians thought it represented a history of global discovery and trade. Too much of written Viking history has emphasized conquest and violence.”
Thanks to FOVS, the Good Templar Park, re-enactors like Watkins and Woods, and Geneva locals, the ship is taking on a new life – but the story’s not done yet.
The Swedish Connection
Today, the Viking is quite at home in Geneva, a city with a long and proud Swedish heritage. Its largest groups of Swedes came between 1880 and 1900; by 1895, at least half of Genevans spoke Swedish.
Local Swedes led the formation of Good Templar Park in 1925. Owned by the International Organization of Good Templars, a temperance group formed by Swedes in the mid 1800s, the park began as a place to host an annual Midsommar Festival. This year, June 16 marks the park’s 102nd Swedish Day. Later that week, from June 18-23, the Geneva Chamber of Commerce continues with its own festival.
The festival’s Swedish vigor has been fading with each generation, but it’s coming back. Laura Rush, director of communications for the chamber, is one of the locals investing in tradition. Last year, she and a co-worker helped to coordinate an international Skype session with people in Sweden. This year, they’re booking new Swedish performers.
“I’m Swedish myself, and I’ve lived here all my life,” she says. “I’ve always visited Swedish Days, and I can tell you that we’re bringing the Swedish back.”
Ingrid Erikson Rowlett, owner of I.B. Quality Cabinets in Geneva, has always been a regular at the local festivals. The daughter of Swedish immigrants who’s fluent in Swedish, she fondly remembers celebrations at Good Templar Park. Today, she dons her mother’s traditional costume for the annual parade, and decorates her company’s vehicle with a big red Dala horse.
Rowlett feels a special connection to The Viking. “It has a heritage that corresponds to Sweden,” she says. “Seeing the ship is really enjoyable, because of my heritage. It’s special to have it in Geneva.”
Swedish Day Midsommar Festival at Good Templar Park has also become an attraction for re-enactors like Watkins, whose “Micel Folcland” troupe establishes a living history camp. They teach visitors about cooking, games and occupations based around the year 1000 A.D.
“When people visit our encampment, we’re trying to give a representation not of a museum, but of what you would see if you were walking down the street of a Viking town,” says Watkins.
He, too, is tied to this ship. With all the research he’s done on the Vikings and Andersen’s voyage, he can’t ignore its significance. This ship is a holy grail.
“We’re on very good relations with members of the park and members of the Viking Ship committee,” says Watkins. “We’re sort of like their pet re-enactors, and the entire group has a very fraternal link to the ship itself. It is our ship.”
Help is Coming
While the Viking is greatly admired, a century of neglect has taken its toll. In 2007, while Straw was researching the ship, the preservation group Landmarks Illinois cited it as one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic landmarks.
Later that year, she linked up with Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley and Elizabeth Safanda, who had applied for a grant for projects like this, offered by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Straw launched a website to stir up interest for the ship, which was one of 25 Chicago-area projects that could receive grant monies, based on votes from the public. “We came in second, which I think is extraordinary,” Straw says.
The $52,000 paid for bracing and riggings that would correct the ship’s warping, and give it support. FOVS formally organized in 2008, attracting a wide array of members, including historians, educators and legal experts. In October 2012, the group received formal trusteeship of the Viking from the Chicago Park District, allowing FOVS to begin official fundraising efforts.
It’s still a race against time. Even though the ship is protected under a shelter, it’s susceptible to weather and humidity – dangerous factors in preservation.
No matter who you talk to about the Viking, everyone wants to see it restored and placed in a museum-like setting. Locals want it to stay in Geneva, while others say it’s best shown in Chicago. So far, there are no takers – anywhere.
“I look to the ship to tell me what it needs,” says Straw. “If I were to dream, I would move it as close to the lake as possible.”
Wherever the Viking goes, lasting repairs can’t be made before it’s found a permanent home. Until that day, its friends and admirers will continue to share its long, rich story.
“More than 30 years ago, people were going to do what we’re doing now,” says Straw. “Can we succeed? I hope so. I think FOVS has a wonderful team. We are working really hard to make this happen.”