When a Viking Ship Invaded Chicago
Updated: Mar 19
A Shimmering World of Illusion
One of the delights of writing historical mysteries is the ability to explore different times and imagine myself there with my characters. As I'm becoming immersed in writing my new novel, Mystery Fair, I've discovered some fascinating things about a shimmering world of illusion called the White City.
The Fair opened on May 1, 1893. It commemorated the 400th anniversary (plus one year) of Christopher Columbus' arrival on the shores of what would be called America.
The Fair contained an astounding number of classical buildings, whimsically created smaller buildings, statues, sculptures, fountains and exhibits featuring all the marvels men and women had created.
From 600 acres that were little more than a mud flat, thousands of workers put together a dream world. And like a dream world, the Fair was not meant to last. Little is left of the White City today, but the stories remain.
The Clash of the Titans
Although the Fair was intended to acknowledge Columbus, he had a powerful rival.
Ancient stories and sagas told of an Icelandic explorer named Leif Eriksson. These stories wove a fantastic tale: Eriksson had arrived on the shores of North America nearly 400 years ahead of Columbus.
Were these stories true? No one living knew if a Viking ship could make it across the ocean. For thousands of years, no one had stood at the bow of one of these ships and felt the wind. No one had seen what a real one looked like or could understand how they could navigate such distances. Viking ships existed only in the sagas, the imagination and in artistic, uncertain images carved into ancient rocks and stones.
An Object of Wonder
And then, in 1880 on a working farm, an object was discovered that caught the imagination of the world. An intact Viking ship was found in an ancient burial mound near Sandefjord, Norway.
The excavation of the Viking ship caused a sensation. In particular, it fired the imagination of a seafaring man named Magnus Andersen. Resourceful and inventive, Andersen had gone to sea at the age of fifteen. By the time he turned twenty-three, he had become a shipmaster.
An idea gripped him after the well-preserved ship was excavated. He could now prove that a Viking craft was capable of taking Leif Eriksson to America. When the World's Columbian Exposition asked other countries to send historical artifacts for display, Andersen decided he wanted to contribute a living ship.
Andersen resolved to build an exact replica of the ancient Viking ship. And sail it, unaided, to the Chicago World's Fair. The government was sympathetic, but felt the voyage was much too risky. They would not provide any official money to build his dream.
Andersen persevered, asking for community support. Funds began to arrive, including pennies sent in by schoolchildren. Plank by plank, with thousands of iron rivets, Andersen started to construct a Viking ship exactly as it had been built in ancient days. By the spring of 1893, the Viking ship stood with the wind in her sail, ready for the journey.
The ship, christened the Viking, was set to begin a dangerous open-ocean voyage to America, captained by Magnus Andersen and a crew of eleven.
Seven-thousand people saw the Viking off on April 30th from Bergen, Norway. The journey to prove a myth had begun.
Over the next twenty-seven days, Captain Andersen felt the ship had indeed turned into a living thing, responding with speed, agility and beauty to the waves and wind around her.
No other vessel helped her across the Atlantic; she only needed the oars, sails and design used by the ancient Vikings. But when the craft neared Chicago by way of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, she was met by over fifty steamships with 50,000 people on board to welcome her to the Fair.
On the day she arrived at the World's Columbian Exposition, 129,000 visitors came to greet her and marvel at the simple, proud design of a ship that had not sailed since ancient times. In contrast, only 89,000 came to see the replicas of Columbus' ships on the day they arrived at the Fair.
In this particular clash of the explorer titans, Leif Eriksson had won again.
And in his own version of time travel, Captain Magnus Andersen proved, against the odds, the truth of an ancient story.
More to Explore
What is the story of the traveling lighthouse, seen behind the Viking in this picture? Visit A Lighthouse Fights Bureaucracy.
The Viking is still attracting crowds to come and experience a Viking ship in person. For more information about this incredible ship, its voyage and preservation, please visit the "Friends of the Viking Ship" at: www.vikingship.us.
At the Viking Ship website, you'll also find a translation of Captain Rasmussen's diary: Viking from Norway to America.