Last October Tripp and I made a pilgrimage to Decorah, Iowa so that we could explore the trails and bluffs of the countryside, sample some of the wonderful food friends have praised and visit Vesterheim, the premier museum of Norwegian-American history and culture in the United States.
We began our exploration with lunch at La Rana, a delightful bistro in downtown Decorah. We spent the afternoon hiking the bluffs above Dunning’s Spring Park and its lovely waterfall. We did a little reconnoitering of Trout Run Trail, an 11-mile paved biking and walking trail that encircles Decorah, before partaking in happy hour at Pulpit Rock Brewery.
After breakfast the next morning at Mudpie, we made our way to Vesterheim. It was a chilly and damp day so it was perfect for museum spelunking.
There are many delightful spaces in Vesterheim’s three floors of historical treasures, but my favorite room is the Westby Ship Gallery. Story boards tell about the period of Scandinavian migration to the United States that began in 1840 and lasted for 80 years. Ship models and paintings detail the vessels that transported the emigres from the Nordic countries across the North Atlantic and some of the perils of making such a journey. Ten of my ancestors and some of their children all made this trek. The first one, my great-great grandfather Hans Hanson Holtan, arrived in 1845 and the last one, my grandfather Ragnvald Duesund Bergeson, arrived in 1910. I’ve written about their experiences in a previous post titled “The Transatlantic Crossings of Our Immigrant Families.”
The centerpiece of the gallery is the 25-foot wooden sailboat, TradeWind, that carried the Hamran brothers from Norway to North America in 1933. Harald and his brother Hans left Kristiansand, Norway in April of 1933 and arrived at 69th St. in Brooklyn, New York on the last weekend in July. They sailed a total of 8,302 miles following coastal waterways and major ocean current corridors to land safely in New York harbor. At the time, this was the smallest sailboat in history to make a transatlantic crossing.
The feat that the brothers accomplished was remarkable. The first thing to acknowledge is that they built the TradeWind themselves. She had no auxiliary power (motor) and no electrical power. There was a kerosene lantern for use at night and to alert other ships of their presence. The only navigational aids they had were a compass and maritime charts. At night they steered by the stars. The one option for hot food was a small kerosene Primus stove that was extremely difficult to use on the open ocean.
Harald kept a ship’s log that he used to mark the boat’s daily progress, wind direction, speed, current position and interesting sights or interactions with other vessels and folks they met during their stops in various ports. His journal entries are brief, but give wonderful insights into his character and state of mind. He was an astute observer of the natural world and quite a philosopher.
The TradeWind left Norway and transited the North Sea to the coast of Germany in order to follow the European continent closely until it reached an island called Helgoland. There Harald set a northwest course across the English Channel and made for Dover. Continuing along the British coast they sailed for Falmouth, before turning south to enter the Bay of Biscay.
The weather along the western edge of France is notoriously treacherous and the brothers were rewarded with a monstrous 4-day storm that nearly proved fatal. “The odds are very much against our getting through this. Our chances are slim, but no matter. It’s great to take chances when all things are against one.” It took another 12 days to reach Cape Finisterre on the northwest coast of Spain, but they survived!
Three days later they put in at the Portuguese city of Lisbon to rest, check the boat’s condition, resupply and prepare for crossing the Atlantic. From there they continued southwest, heading for the Canary Islands off the African coast which they sighted after a week of uneventful sailing.
On the island of Tenerife in the Canaries they spent several days re-provisioning, examining and repairing the rigging, and repainting the hull. Then it was off into the Atlantic again for the nearly 3,000 mile crossing to the West Indies. During the next month the trade winds were mostly favorable and the men were quite at ease with their situation. Aside from their many encounters with flying fish, both vexing and hilarious, their routine was summed up as “Nothing to do except getting bewhiskered and suntanned.”
Their first Caribbean island sighting was Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles. They made landfall on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and then sailed along the northern coasts of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba. From Cuba they continued north through the Bahamas to the coast of Florida and then along the eastern seaboard to New York where they received a hero’s welcome and a parade down Broadway.
Their 8,000+ mile journey took a little more than four months. The only loss they suffered was Hans’s mandolin which was split at the seams and had rusted strings before they reached Spain. Harald reports that “it was offered up to Father Neptune in the Bay of Biscay.”
The last stop on the Hamran’s U.S. itinerary was the Chicago World’s Fair. Arthur Anderson (yes, the founder) bought the boat in New York and had it transported to Chicago for the affair. The brothers went along to introduce it to the public.
My Dad, who grew up in Chicago, told me on many occasions how sad he was to miss the 1933 World’s Fair when he was eight years old. The whole family went, but left him at home because he was sick. Now I wonder if the family saw the TradeWind and met the Hamran brothers. No one has ever mentioned it to me, but it may have happened!
In 1992 Vesterheim published Harald’s ship log as a small book titled “Voyage of the TradeWind.” It’s a quick read, but well worth it.