Dagfinn Kvale of Nordmannsforbundet tells the captivating story of Roald Amundsen's arrival with Gjøa in San Francisco 100 years ago, after having been the first ever to sail through the North-West Passage.
Roald Amundsen is a bright name in the history of Arctic exploration. As the first in the world, he conquered the South Pole, December 14, 1911. Amundsen became world famous over night.
The Gjøa expedition is not that famous by far. Nevertheless it is a deed of great format. With his Hardanger-sloop Gjøa, not larger than 47 tons, 70 feet long and with small auxiliary engines, Roald Amundsen and his crew of 5, accomplished what nobody else had done before. Amundsen conquered the Northwest Passage. The Gjøa expedition lasted 3 years, from 1903 to 1906, all the way from the Oslo fjord to the San Francisco Bay.
Nineteenth of October 1906 is a remarkable day in San Francisco’s maritime history. On that day Gjøa glided proudly through the Strait of the Golden Gate, towed by a cutter with the appropriate name ”Golden Gate”. Captain Magnus Andersen was at the helm. Gjøa anchored up at Bonita Cove, near Sausalito.
If Gjøa had arrived rather anonymously, its fate was soon to change. Two days later, on October 21st, the vessel was towed across the Bay, accompanied the U.S. Marine Band. It tied up at the foot of Mission Street, a few yards from the Scandinavian Lutheran Seamen’s Mission. Scandinavian seamen were pleased to be on the welcoming committee.
It was quite a triumphal procession when Roald Amundsen and his men paraded up Market street in horse-drawn carriages in best Victorian style. The Norwegian Club, then located on Pine Street, was the venue of a dinner that marked the opening of a celebration which was to last for 3 days in the City.
Roald Amundsen’s dream was to sail Gjøa around the Cape Horn, but he realized it would be too time-consuming and costly. Instead he generously donated his famous vessel to the City of San Francisco. Gjøa was hauled to Mare Island where it was kept for 3 years. Norwegian-Americans do not always agree, but in this case they agreed wholeheartedly. “Mare Island is not the place. Gjøa has to be preserved for future generations as a Norwegian memorial ship.” A committee was formed which bought the ship and handed it over to San Francisco. Fifth of July 1909 Gjøa was hauled ashore the Ocean Beach and secured in sand dunes in the Golden Gate Park, with the bow pointing toward the Pacific Ocean. Gjøa became a great tourist attraction for 63 years. In 1930 the ship was supplemented with the relief of the arctic hero, on an impressive granite stone in front of the ship.
Unfortunately there is something called ravages of time. Exposed to weather, wind and vandalism Gjøa suffered damages. It was overhauled several times, especially in connection with King Olav’s visit to the City in 1968, but the ship was in need of constant maintenance and care. It was easy to get on board through a hole both in the fence and in the hull. The hippies had a special sense of appreciation for Gjøa. They liked to climb the rig and found out that the vessel was an ideal place for overnighting. As pastor of the Norwegian Seamen’s church I took the seamen to see the vessel. One hippie told us what a great pleasure it was to touch the ship’s frames, experiencing the voyage through the Northwest Passage on a LSD-trip. Remains of coal inside the ship clearly showed that fires had been lit to keep warm. Norwegian seamen were shocked to see Gjøa’s condition. Back in Norway they helped spread this information to the newspapers. The reaction of the Press was unanimous: ”It is time to save Gjøa. Roald Amundsen’s legendary ship has to come to back to Norway.”
Rolf B. Schou was at the time Secretary/Treasurer of the Gjøa Foundation. With the support of Consul General Finn Koren, shipowners like Christian Blom and Tom Wilhelmsen, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church and Sons of Norway, the case was presented to the Mayor of San Francisco, Joseph Alioto. The Mayor and the Board of Supervisors took the issue seriously, admitting that the ship ought to have been taken better care of. On the other hand, the ship was a gift to the City. Maybe, after restoration, it would be more natural to have Gjøa moved to the Aquatic Park on Hyde Street, near the National Maritime Museum? However, since no decision was taken, it became clear that a new initiative was needed. A proposal was presented to the Gjøa Foundation by director Svein Molaug of the Maritime Museum at Bygdøy, Oslo. The museum would be willing to take charge of Roald Amundsen’s vessel, move the ship to Oslo and that without the cost of a single, solitary cent for the City of San Francisco. Mayor Alioto and the Board of Supervisors approved the proposal. Gjøa could set out to sea again.
But how was Gjøa be able to come back to Norway? In its present condition the ship was in no way able to undertake such a voyage. It would have to be on board a Norwegian merchant ship. Captain Ole Kalve of Star Shipping Company arranged transport on M/V Star Billabong. The ”Rex sole” of the Norwegian Fish Club, Christian Blom, ordered his ”Tordenskiold’s soldater” to show up at pier 50 with brushes and buckets, thus showing their willingness to give Gjøa a facelift before the departure to its homeland. To applause Gjøa was hoisted on board Star Billabong as deck cargo. Roald Amundsen’s much traveled ship arrived safely in Oslo on July 2, 1972.
A new chapter in Gjøa’s history had begun. It was granted a place next to its “bigger brother”, the famous “Fram”. A major restoration took place in 1972, so thorough that there is little left of the original ship except for the keel and ship’s bottom. Gjøa has become a great asset to the Norwegian Maritime Musum in Oslo, visited by a great number of people every year, especially in the 100th year since Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the Northwest Passage by sea.
Despite these facts, the Museum in Oslo has, in the Jubilee year, come under criticism. Like it was in San Francisco, Gjøa is in the open air, exposed to elements of nature like rain, snow and harsh winds. The question is being asked: When will Gjøa be sheltered, as it the case with Fram?
”There are no economic means or plans to bring Gjøa in,” the research leader Bård Koltveit of the Norwegian Maritime Museum, said recently in an interview in the daily paper Aftenposten. What people ask, and among them some in San Francisco: Will the fate of Gjøa repeat itself?
Despite the ”transplantation” to Norway, however, the legendary Gjøa still is being remembered and cherished among people in San Francisco. By the Ocean Beach where Gjøa once was ”harbored”, you may still see the relief of Roald Amundsen, embodied in the massive and impressive granite stone, commemorating a great chapter in Norwegian maritime and arctic history.
Beyond doubt, the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s and Gjøa’s arrival in San Francisco will be celebrated in style. On the day itself, the 19th of October 2006, Nordmanns-Forbundet (The Norseman’s Federation), San Francisco/North Bay Chapter, has taken an initiative, with the support of the Norwegian Club of San Francisco. The Norwegian Club can boast of having Roald Amundsen’ s skiis on display, besides having other rare historical artifacts in its library.