How the Viking took the 1893 Columbian Expo by storm!

October 13th, 2015

By Clark L. Chapin, Numismatic Photographer for Black Mountain Coins

The 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first landfall in the Caribbean was a much anticipated and feted remembrance. In the United States, barely a quarter century past the awful Civil War and on the precipice of a new age with dreams of modernity and progress, the measure of a young nation required a world stage on which to exhibit its might, talents and ambitions: a stage grander that that of this fractious, break-neck republic.

Map of the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago.

Since the Civil War the nation had become obsessed with the idea of not just a unity of states but of a united identity. The former project of Manifest Destiny had seen a continental power forged amidst conflicts north and south, east and west. Alaska was ours since 1867 and the Pacific ambitions we had expounded in 1858 under Commodore Perry caused many to profess an even grander destiny. Already the newspapers of the day were saber-rattling against the decayed empire of Spain and envisioning an America that would sweep all the way to the Philippines.

Saint-Gaudens obverse design for the 1892 Columbian Exposition Medal

 Saint-Gaudens obverse design for the 1892 Columbian Exposition Medal

The Chicago Exposition would be our showcase of imperial merit. We would demonstrate that we Americans were the ones to rightfully take up the mantel as the new discovers, the rightful heirs of Columbus, the conquerors of a new age. But even in 1893 not all Americans were overjoyed with the celebration of Columbus as the discoverer of the New World.

Our democracy, composed of a diversity of ethnic groups, possessed some that, though proud to have served the Union and to be a part of our grand experiment, felt their identity and their heritage neglected. While plans for the Columbian anniversary progressed one group in particular raised a challenge to the mariner’s vaunted status. Norwegians and Scandinavians from throughout the country began to repeat their understanding that a very different man had ventured to the shores of Vinland long before an itinerant Genoese sailor had stumbled upon a shore he mistook to be Cathay.

Anne Whitney's Bronze Statue of Leif Ericson in Boston.

 Anne Whitney’s Bronze Statue of Leif Erikson in Boston.

In 1887 a statue, executed by Anne Whitney, of Leif Erikson was erected in Boston. Scandinavian-Americans there asserted that Vinland had to have stretched as far south as Boston if grapes were indeed to have been found by the vikings. Immediately popular, castings of Anne Whitney’s statue were made and Leif Eriksons began to pop up elsewhere in the north. Milwaukee erected hers later the same year and another was Christian Krohg’s, commissioned and installed in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition itself. This was just one of many Leif Erikson commemoratives to be commissioned for the event. The famed Norwegian naturalist and painter, Christian Krohg, created his work “Leif Erikson discovers America” especially for the exposition. But the greatest venture, the one that would take the expo by storm, was an entry in the field of technology and transportation.

Gokstad Viking ship excavation. Photographed in 1880

 Gokstad Viking ship excavation. Photographed in 1880

In 1880, just past the new year, two sons of a Gokstad farmer were digging in their field when they came upon ancient timbers. By May of that year the site had been converted into a true archeological dig and from the field emerged the prow of a ship and, in time, a complete clinker-built viking ship. This was the first nearly complete viking ship to be seen by the world in more than half a millennium. Careful excavation and analysis of the find uncovered a specimen exact enough to allow the plans of construction for such a ship to be rendered anew and in 1892 the project to resurrect the Gokstad ship was underway.

 “Leif Erikson discovers America” by Christian Krohg, 1893.

The replica, christened Viking, was built and completed at Christen Christensen’s Framnes Shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway between 1892-1893. Commanded by Captain Magnus Andersen and a crew of 11 she departed Bergen, sailed via Newfoundland and New York, up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal and into the Great Lakes. At Chicago she was boarded by the city’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Sr, who declared himself a descendant of vikings, took the helm, and sailed her to the quay beside the Columbian Exposition’s Hall of Manufacturing. The Viking had arrived and she was the toast of the town and star of the entire expo!

Map showing the travels of the ship, Viking in 1893 and 1894.

 Map showing the travels of the ship, Viking in 1893 and 1894.

A page from H.H.Van Meter's 1894 rememberances of the Columian Exposition

 A page from H.H.Van Meter’s 1894 remembrance of the Columbian Exposition

Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr of Chicago sails the ship Viking to the quay at the 1983 Columbian Exposition.

 Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr of Chicago sails the ship Viking to the quay at the 1983 Columbian Exposition.

Her voyage and presence at the event had created such a sensation that Columbus had to either share top billing or play second fiddle to the Viking invasion. Leif Erikson, the Norse sagas and the the clinker-built Viking were to be found everywhere! And the Viking wasn’t done! From Chicago she sailed down the Mississippi and called at New Orleans, spreading the sensation of viking naval supremacy to the deepest south! She returned to Chicago later the next year and has ever since been a living exhibit here in the United States. She can be seen today in a special structure in Good Templar Park in Geneva, Illinois. The head and tail of the Viking are in storage at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Since the Exposition the world has been given many more examples of Scandinavian prowess at sea & in exploration. We invite you to visit our collections to see some of the coins and medals struck to commemorate the accomplishments of these Nordic souls!