The top brass at the Chicago Park District thought they'd figured out what to do with the great Viking ship near the duck pond in the Lincoln Park Zoo. In December they sold the replica of a 1,000-year-old wooden vessel, which has been stored in the park for most of this century, to the American Scandinavian Council, a group of Scandinavian American civic and business leaders.
"The council promised to restore the ship and maintain it for public view," says Park District official Ed Uhlir. "It's a good idea that should end concern over the ship."
But instead of winning praise, the. Park District finds itself entangled in a feud between warring factions of the Scandinavian American community. (Admittedly, the feud is rather tame as intraethnic rivalries go; one side isn't calling those on the other side "traitors" and "worms," as was the case when Hispanic residents recently fought over a statue in Humboldt Park.)
On one side is the Viking Ship Restoration Committee, led by Cook County commissioner Carl Hansen, who says it's shameful to let a private group own a priceless public artifact. "The Park District's turned its back on a ship that has been entrusted to its care for over 70 years," he says. "Shame on them."
On the other side is the American Scandinavian Council, a stodgy bunch of businessmen, most of whom live in the suburbs. "I don't know why Carl keeps kicking this horse around," says William Carlson, the council's president. "I think the whole thing boils down to Carl losing control of something he's held on to for 20 years."
The ship in question is a replica of a vessel discovered in Sandefjord, Norway, more than 100 years ago. For a while there was talk of transporting the original ship to Chicago to be displayed as part of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. "People in Norway wisely said no, because it was a precious artifact," says Hansen, who was born and raised in Chicago but takes great pride in his Scandinavian roots. "But they decided to build an exact replica."
And an amazing replica it is. "The ship is tangible representation of the first contact by western Europeans with the western hemisphere at the time of Leif Eriksson," says Hansen. "This is the same kind of ship that could have made that voyage in about the year 1000. It's an absolute beauty--76 feet long with a 17-foot-wide beam. All the plankings are laid out the way the Vikings did in a tradition handed down from father to son."
In 1893 the ship set sail from Norway to Chicago under the command of Captain Magnus Andersen, who was determined to prove that a Viking vessel could survive the transatlantic voyage. "This was prior to the days of radio, mind you, and Andersen was completely out of touch with everybody once he was aboard the ship," says Hansen. "They first made landfall in Newfoundland, and then received a tumultuous welcome in New England, and then New York. They traveled up the Hudson, through the Erie Canal, through the Great Lakes, arriving in Chicago to great fanfare, including a front-page article in the Tribune."
After being displayed at the exposition, the ship was sailed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. "It's the only vessel ever to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and to follow the inland waterway of North America," says Hansen. "It's a remarkable boat."
Eventually the ship returned to Chicago and was kept alongside what is now the Museum of Science and Industry near replicas of the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria, which had also been featured at the exposition. "All of those ships were shabbily treated, which is not surprising since we have a tendency to tear down anything that's more than, oh, 35 years old," says Hansen. "Of those three replicas of the Columbus ships, one rotted, one burned, and one was chopped up for kindling. Kindling? Can you believe that? As though they couldn't find kindling somewhere else. Philistines all."
The Viking ship might have gone the way of the Columbus vessels had it not been for the intervention of local Norwegian American civic groups. "Particularly the Norwegian women, God bless their souls," says Hansen. "In the 1920s they raised the money to restore the ship and get it permanently located in Lincoln Park."
And that's where it's remained all these years, decomposing under a foul veneer of pigeon droppings. No one in power seemed particularly concerned about the ship's fate, though Hansen did his best to stir interest. In the early 1970s he helped create the Viking Ship Restoration Committee, which began raising money to have it restored. Hansen's great dream was to have it permanently installed at the Museum of Science and Industry. But the museum's board--as well as officials at the Chicago Historical Society and the Field Museum--made it clear they wanted nothing to do with an old boat, no matter what its historical worth.
City administrations came and went, and Hansen wrote letters to and met with each new wave of Park District officials who came to power. "I was hoping to find someone who shared my mission," he says. "The big problem was this: you can't raise money for restoration and moving until you have a location. And you cant get a location until you have the money--a classic catch-22. I got no help from the Park District. Just a big nothing. They had no feeling of responsibility for a world-class artifact whatsoever. They were about as sensitive as the concrete in one of the walkways."
Park District officials have a different version of events. As they see it, Hansen is a cranky pain in the neck who never delivered on his promises. "In September of 1993 [Superintendent] Forrest Claypool wrote Hansen a letter offering to work with his committee and even match them on the cost of conserving and moving the ship to another site," says Uhlir. "Hansen never responded to Claypool."
By then it was clear that the district would have to move the ship to make way for a new mammal and reptile house. "We let it be known that we were facing time constraints about the ship," says Uhlir. "And we got several viable offers."
One came from a Scandinavian-heritage museum in Iowa, which offered to pay complete moving and restoration costs. But Park District officials demurred because they wanted to keep the ship in Chicago. Finally in November the American Scandinavian Council offered to restore the ship and move it to a site somewhere in the Chicago area, preferably a soon-to-be-created museum at Navy Pier. "We propose a permanent exhibit in a Viking World Museum at Navy Pier," says Carlson. "We still have to get approval from the Plan Commission and the Planning Department for the Navy Pier site. But we're dedicated to this goal."
Hansen's not convinced. "First of all, I think title of the ship should be left with the Park District, not a private group. Secondly, I'm not sure the council has the wherewithal to raise the money to preserve and maintain this ship the way it should be--as a world-class museum artifact. The council's only six years old, you know."
Carlson counters that his group consists of prominent bankers and business leaders who have strong ties to the embassies of all the Scandinavian countries. Furthermore, he says, the group established its money-raising capabilities with a gala event six years ago that featured Victor Borge. "We're going to raise considerable money for this, though I'm not prepared to say how much at this time," he says. "I will say this: in 20 years Carl Hansen raised about $35,000. I've raised more than that in 26 days."
On December 20 the Park District Board voted to transfer title of the ship to Carlson's group for $1. Hansen responded with a press release accusing the Park District of "creating a bidding war" over the ship and of a "betrayal of the rich Scandinavian heritage of our city."
Uhlir thinks Hansen is off base. "I think Carl has to get serious. Carl wants it in a museum, but the museums don't want it. Carl wants it in the Jackson Park basin, but we're not going to have some huge carbuncle in the middle of the lagoon. It's not going to happen. Wake up, Carl."
Hansen remains undaunted. He's been joined by Richard Bjorklund, a retired newspaper executive, and says he will press ahead with his campaign to persuade some museum to take the ship. "This ship could be a huge draw--bigger even than the submarine. It's more valuable than a 727, which the Science and Industry museum recently found room for. Maybe 100 years ago people would be interested in a 727, dealing with it as something out of Jules Verne's imagination. But nowadays everyone's flown on one, so what's the big deal? Now a Viking ship--that's a big deal."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.