Chicagoans set their sails to save the ship that retraced Viking voyage

The Midwest is probably the last place you'd expect to bump into a Viking ship. But just around the corner from the sea lions in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo is a huge, brown Norwegian vessel that could become one of this city's major historic landmarks.

It is a replica of a warship built around AD 900 and found more than 100 years ago in a burial mound at Gokstad, Norway. When the organizers of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition asked the Scandinavians to send over the Gokstad ship for the Chicago exhibit, they decided the ship was too fragile for the trip and that a replica would be more practical.

Norwegian schoolchildren and businessmen contributed money to build the vessel, which was authentic down to the smallest detail of hand-hammered rivets to attach the planks of Norwegian oak. Only when builders had trouble finding a Norwegian tree tall enough for the 76-foot keel did they make an exception. A tree of the right height was imported from Canada.

Though the ship was built for 32 oarsmen, Capt. Magnus Andersen, a newspaper publisher and yachtsman, set sail with a crew of 12 sailors - and no instruments other than a sextant, barometer, and compass. Using sail and oar power, the Viking ship crossed the Atlantic in 28 days.

After the exposition, Captain Andersen took the ship on a cruise past the Great Lakes, down the Illinois-Michigan Canal, and along the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. In the process, his ship became the first to cross the Atlantic and the entire inland waterway system. Eventually Andersen donated the ship to the people of Chicago.

It is the only ship of its kind outside Scandinavia. But for many years this weathered vessel has been docked on dry land under a roof shelter and behind a protective wire fence, unnoticed by most Chicagoans.

Only in the last few years did this city's Scandinavian community form the Viking Ship Restoration Committee to embark on an ambitious fund-raising campaign to restore the ship. (More than a ton of pigeon droppings have already been removed.)

The committee also is building a temperature-controlled Viking pavilion to house the ship at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in time for Chicago's 1992 World's Fair. The museum, which has long had the restored dragon's head and tail of the Viking ship on display, is the only other major structure left from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.

So far the restoration committee, which recently opened bank accounts in Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway to try to augment its collections, has raised $100,000 of its $3 million goal. Just a few days ago consular officials here rededicated the ship and officially opened it to the public on weekends. A ramp has been built so visitors can look down into the six-foot-deep hull.

At the time the Viking ship replica sailed to the US, there was considerable debate over the early tales of Viking exploration in such ships - including Leif Ericsson's voyage to this country so many centuries before Columbus. Were they really possible? By successfully crossing the Atlantic, Captain Andersen reportedly felt he proved that they were.

''I was ashamed of myself for doubting the ship's seaworthiness,'' he later said. ''The flexibility of structure . . . proved to be an element of strength rather than of weakness.''

''This ship is really the world's first Kon Tiki in the sense of re-creating a historic voyage,'' says restoration chairman Carl R. Hansen. ''It's a priceless Chicago artifact.''

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