We know that Norsemen first reached North American shores around 1000 AD. But how many are aware that at least a few Norwegians walked New York streets as early as the 1600s?
From Scandinavia Review
By Lars Nilsen
Nowadays when you think about Norwegians in New York it’s the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn that first comes to mind. This area was certainly the center of the Scandinavian “colony” when its population peaked through the 1930s to the 1960s. But while Bay Ridge still hosts the well-attended festivities surrounding the 17th-of-May Parade, celebrating Norwegian Independence Day, the Nordics, not inclined to form lasting ghettos, have largely fled farther afield and melded into the fabric of their adopted country. A closer look at their history in New York reveals that Norwegians gathered in a succession of areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn going way back. Norway was part of Denmark until 1814 when it entered into a union with Sweden as a result of the Napoleonic wars. It gained its modern independence after a peaceful secession on 1905.
In 1619 the Danish King was also eager to join the search for the Northwest Passage that had eluded Hudson and he sent a Norwegian, Jens Munk, to America with two ships on this quest. Unfortunately Munk was also unsuccessful and returned with just two of his sailors.At this time Holland was becoming a world power—building its navy and shipping industry. Many Norwegians were recruited and moved to the Netherlands, Dr. John O. Evjen, in his 1916 book Scandinavian Immigrants in New York 1630-1674, did extensive research and listed 57 Norwegians among the early residents of New Amsterdam, the Dutch East India trading post. Many married and formed families that became prosperous and influential, such as the Vanderbilts. Roelof Jansen and his wife Anneka arrived in 1634 to oversee the Rensselaer estate located near Albany. When he completed his contract he was given a piece of land just northwest of what is now City Hall in Manhattan. Roelof passed away shorty thereafter and Anneka Jansen married the first head of the Dutch Reformed Church ( Everardus Bogardus). She had a total of nine children whose successors were involved in a long-term dispute with the City and Trinity Church concerning the ownership of her property. Hans Hansen from Bergen came to New York via Holland in 1633. A carpenter, he married Sarah Rapalje—the firstwoman born of European parents. They settled in a Dutch outpost in what is now Bergen Beach. One of his sons, Jan Hansen, became a sea captain and owner of several vessels. A grandson, Van Brunt Hansen, was an engineer who became head of Brooklyn’s Public Works and for whom Van Brunt street in Red Hook is named.
The close connection with New Amsterdam was diminished with the takeover by the English in 1674. Norwegians would only trickle in until Young traditionally clad onlookers at a 17th-of-May Parade. 1825 with the arrival of the first immigrant ship from Stavanger, Norway, Restaurationen, with 53 passengers. Most of the “sloopers”, as they were affectionately called, made their way up the Hudson River to the newly opened Erie Barge Canal, which was to be the driving force for the growth of the Port of New York, profiting from the traffic and trade going back and forth to the Midwest, then the heart of America. While there weren’t many immigrants arriving until later, visits by Norwegian ships were increasing. Norwegian sailors were paid much less than their counterparts on American vessels causing a small percentage of them to jump ship and sign up for the higher pay on American ships. The transient nature of the sailor’s life gave rise to “sailor houses” competing to provide lodgings and entertainment for them, some of whom were just teenagers. Many of these facilities catered to prostitution and directed sailors, for a fee, to captains needing crew members. In 1844 a Methodist church was constructed on a ship berthed in the Hudson River. It was named Bethel Ship and Olof Hedstrom, a Swede,was its pastor. In 1874 they moved the ship to Red Hook and subsequently built several other churches on land in Brooklyn.
The Norwegian Community was now growing and centered around Market and Monroe Streets along the East River in Manhattan. In 1844 the Scandinavian Society was formed, meeting in a building on Carlyle Street near Washington Street. The building, located below Ground Zero, was only recently torn down. This section of Manhattan still has a number of buildings from that period. A.N. Rygg, in his 1941 book «Norwegians in New York: 1825-1925», noted that the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull visited New York in 1845. About 3,000 Norwegians were estimated to have been in the community in 1870.
In 1866, Our Savior’s Church was started on Monroe Street in Manhattan. It would later move to Red Hook and subsequently to Bay Ridge. Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature, visited the neighborhood during his several-day visit to New York. In 1878 the Norwegian Seamen’s Church was started in a storefront location. Later that year it purchased a Methodist church building in Red Hook at 111 Pioneer Street (formerly William Street), since most of the overseas shipping was being located in the Atlantic and Erie Basins in Brooklyn. Due to the increased number of arriving ships, conflicts arose when the Seamen’s Church had to turn away resident Norwegians to favor the sailors. Access to Red Hook from New York was by the Hamilton Avenue ferry (started in 1846) until the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. That same year the Norwegian Hospital was founded by Sister Elizabeth Fedde in a building next to the Seamen’s Church. It grew and moved several times and is now serving a large part of Brooklyn in seven different languages as the Lutheran Medical Center. In Manhattan, two Norwegians, Lars C. Ihlseng and Conrad Narvesen, formed the Piano Manufacturing Company on 53rd street. As the community grew, with arriving immigrantsand sailors “coming on land,” other organizations were formed to satisfy their needs and help them maintain their Norwegian identity.
While Brooklyn was the center of the “colony,” the entire area around the New York Bay also contained Norwegians. Hoboken and Jersey City were among places where work on the ever-growing waterfront was to be found. The young women would take positions with families to earn money. Norwegian immigrants had the advantage of being able to read and write as a result of their education in Norwegian schools. Communication with the “Old Country” was kept up by mail. We have insights to their thoughts from letters saved in private collections. In 1981 a bundle of 67 letters was found in a house being renovated in Grimstad, Norway. It seems that two boys working in the Post Office in 1896 discovered that some letters from America contained money, which they stole. They were eventually caught and punished, but for some reason they saved the letters. Forty-six of them were from locations in the New York area. A book was published in 1996, “Amerikabrevene” (The America Letters) by Erik Aalvik Evensen.
Hans S. Christian arrived as a sailor from Farsund and became a successful owner of a building-supply firm located on the Gowanus Canal. Upon his death, his wife Elmira had two beautiful buildings constructed on President Street in 1897. One was dedicated as the Hans Christian Memorial and donated to the Brooklyn Free Kindergarden Society. A large sum was also given to the Norwegian Hospital.
As the residents of the Red Hook area prospered they sought to get away from some of the unsavory conditions along Hamilton Ave and the smell of the Gowanus Canal. Gradually the community moved deeper into Brooklyn to the more desirable Sunset Park and Bay Ridge sections. The completion of the 4th Avenue subway in 1915 enabled them to still have access to their waterfront jobs. The harbor was teeming with tugboats and barges that were manned to a great extent by Norwegians. One of the actor Jimmy Cagney’s grandfathers was a Norwegian tugboat captain. The sailing skills of the Norwegians made them sought after for the crews of the America’s Cup, defenders and private yachts of the wealthy. Experienced Norwegian captains held high positions in the New York Yacht Club, defenders of the Cup. Capt. Chris Christensen and his Scandinavian crew, primarily Norwegians from Tysnes, sailed the Resolute to victory over Sir Lipton’s Shamrock IV. The New York Times reported that Sir Thomas Liption praised the Americans crew and indicated “their performance was splended throughout . . . such sailors are born . . . and the precison of their work was something to marvel at.”
The late 1920s were bad for shipping and the depression of the 1930s caused approximately 400 Norwegian sailors to seek shelter in makeshift shacks among the rubble of a dump in Red Hook. This Hooverville of about 600 inhabitants (Norwegians named it “Ørkenen Sur”) existed until 1934 when they were evicted by NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to make way for the current athletic fields. Many churches (the Bethesda Mission had an annex next to the area), the Salvation Army and private citizens aided the suffering occupants. A book has recently been released in Norway describing the sailors’ plight.
Many immigrants coming to New York were engineers. Ole Singstad was among the most prominent, leaving his mark building the Holland, Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels, which have been part of the lifeblood of traffic flow in and out of Manhattan. His statue sits on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel by the toll booth. Others helped build the subway system, as well as the Woolworth and the Empire State Buildings These were highlighted in the successful 2000 Ellis Island Exhibit Norwegians in New York 1825 to 2000—Builders of City Community and Culture, created and presented by the Norwegian Immigration Association. In 1925 the Norwegian American Engineers Society was founded to assist young engineers coming from the schools in Norway. Also in 1925, the centennial of Norwegian Emigration was celebrated with Roald Amundsen speaking to 3,000 persons at the 71st Street Armory in Manhattan, a festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and finally a dinner for 1,000 at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights.
By this time, Norwegians had started to move to other sections of the city—the Bronx, Riverside Heights and the suburbs. The Upper East Side had small group around 123rd street where another Our Saviors Church was built. Norwegian carpenters were active in building houses and apartment buildings. Wherever they lived, a church was sure to be close by. Between 1930 and 1960 was the height of the colony’s size—a maximum of around 62,000. This community, at one time the third largest Norwegian-speaking city in the world after Oslo and Bergen, Norway, had grown into a real city with all the institutions and services you would expect. Intime Forum was started to facilitate cultural discussions and perform plays, sometimes on subjects in conflict with the ideas of the churchgoers. In 1914 a bust of Edvard Grieg was donated to Brooklyn and placed on a pedestal in the Concert Grove of Prospect Park. A series of radio programs on WNYC—“ Norway in New York”—were sponsored by the Norwegian paper Nordisk Tidende. From 1929 to 1939, Art Jorgens, born in Modum, Norway, played in 307 baseball games for the New York Yankees. He was a backup catcher for Bill Dickey. In 1931 a silent film Glimt fra New York og den norske koloni, was released. It was produced by Michael Leirvik, an engineer, to show thethe Norwegian colony in New York to Norwegians back home.
In 1939 with war threatening in Europe, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha visited other parts of the U.S. for several months before coming to New York and opening the Norwegian Pavillion at the New York World’s Fair. Their last act before sailing to Norway on the Stavangerfjord was to participate with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the dedication of the Leiv Eiriksson monument in Leif Ericson Park. Some 10,000 witnessed the event. WWII rallied the community in support of occupied Norway. Monies and clothing were gathered by a varity of groups and, of course, more sailors arrived since the Norwegian merchant fleet (the world’s fourth largest) could not return to home ports. Travis Island in Westchester County hosted a gunnery school for Norwegian sailors.
After the war a different type of immigrant appeared. Jobs were plentiful and young men and women arrived from Norway with the intent of working and saving money to eventually return home. Carpenters and dockbuilders were in high demand. Many of them returned and settled in Lista. Norwegian-Americans joined in the move to the suburbs stretching out the bounds of the community. Immigration quotas were changed in the 1960s, allowing fewer northern Europeans access. Young people took advantage of college and moved into professional occupations, such as Roy Lars Magnus Boe, born in Brooklyn, recently passed away, who at one time controlled both the New York Nets basketball team and the Islanders hockey team. Larger facilities had been built around Hansen Place to house the Norwegian and Swedish seamen manning the extra ships visiting here during the war. Ships arriving today are containerized, with smaller crews who stay in port for a much shorter time.
This has been an attempt to give an overview of the Norwegian presence in New York City. Much of the records from the early period are undocumented, but several books have been written going into more detail. Still undiscovered photos, movies and information are being sought to provide the story for posterity. The New York Public Library currently estimates there are approximately 41,000 Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the area. These include a growing number of professionals arriving here from Norway. Some of the institutions still exist. The Lutheran Medical Center, the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center, the Sons of Norway and the Gjøa Soccer Club are still going strong. Contributing to the larger community, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church and other churches still play an important part. There is still a newspaper, The Norwegian-American Weekly, though it is published in Seattle and the community comes together to select a Miss Norway of Greater New York, celebrate Norwegian Independence Day and enjoy the 17th-of-May Parade. The Norwegian business community is represented by the Norwegian Chamber of Commerce and there is a strong presence projected by the Royal Norwegian Consulate. Next year another Norwegian contribution will have been made to the city when Snøhetta, the celebrated Norwegian architectural firm, will open its prize winning World Trade Center Memorial currently under construction at Ground Zero.
Lars Nilsen is a graduate mechanical engineer who has worked both for Boeing and Grumman. He later became a financial adviser at Paine Webber and is currently a vice president in the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney joint venture. He has been an active member of the ASF and the American Scandinavian Society for almost 50 years. He is historian and co-chair of the Norwegian Immigration Association.