Outstanding Mr. Engvig
Maritime historian Olaf Engvig honored
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Maritime historian and author Olaf Engvig, originally from Rissa, Norway, was named 2015 Outstanding Scandinavian American for “saving Norway’s maritime history for future generations.”
The award was presented Nov. 1 in festive ceremonies at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where a sizable audience watched Engvig receive the honor from Howard Rockstad and Knut Oxnevad of the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation, sponsors of the award.
Now a resident of the Los Angeles area, Engvig is internationally known for his lifelong commitment to writing about—and saving and protecting—historic boats and ships of Norway. Engvig’s research and writing have brought to life the otherwise nearly forgotten role of ships in the life of the nation.
For his work saving and restoring historic vessels, he was given the Gold Medal of Merit from King Harald V of Norway. Earlier, he was given the St. Olav’s Medal from King Olav for his work in promoting Norway abroad.
Engvig recently completed the restoration of the only remaining coastal lumber schooner of its type in the world. This Norwegian ship is similar to the lumber schooners used by the “Scandinavian Navy” that brought lumber from the Pacific Northwest to places like Los Angeles and San Diego for their early building booms.
Detailing his seaworthy accomplishments at the presentation was Ernst F. Tonsing, himself a recipient of the Outstanding Scandinavian Award in 2010, who told the audience, “This is one person whose life-long quest has been to discover and make known these vessels,” ranging from Viking-style longboats to lumber schooners.
His most recent restoration is the 84-foot steam schooner Værdalen, built in Norway in 1891. The restoration took 36 years, and was completed just this year. “I worked extremely hard trying to save this ship for future generations,” Engvig noted. The schooner once transported passengers and mail in Norway. It is the sole survivor of the kind of lumber schooners that once sailed the U.S. West Coast, and is now ready to go back to sea.
It is a living monument to the contribution Norwegians made in the development of the Pacific Northwest—all based on lumber. “Forests stood untouched all the way down to the coast,” writes Engvig on his website. “This was a place Scandinavians felt at home; even the rocky coast was something they knew from home.” These Norwegians manned the first schooner-rigged sailing ships for lumber transport.
The vessels were later developed into “a hybrid sail steam ship, an excellent vessel for navigating the rocky shores and transporting lumber down from the Pacific Northwest for the development of big cities after gold was found in California.”
From the 1880s until after World War II, there were about 225 of these steam schooners, which hauled millions of board feet of lumber on the southern run, as well as goods and money to pay the mill workers and lumberjacks in the north.
Engvig has described how Norwegian sailors became daredevils who would take a ship in between rocks in so-called “dog-holes”—harbors barely big enough for a dog. Although they were Norwegians, Norway was still in union with Sweden and the huge fleet of lumber schooners working the West Coast was known to the world as “The Scandinavian Navy.”
Livening up the program was the singing of songs of the sea by soprano Ingrid Isaksen. Following the presentation in Overton Hall at CLU, audience members joined a parade of Scandinavian flags to the Scandinavian Center just outside campus for a reception.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.