How the watery west was won

An interview with author Olaf Engvig, maritime historian and preserver of historical ships

Photo courtesy of Olaf T. Engvig
The Værdalen on its maiden voyage after restoration, in 2015. Restoring the ship was the work of 36 years.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Many of us have been taught that the settlement of the American west by the non-indigenous began with the Homestead Act, as immigrants flocked to have a bit of their own land. The Gold Rush sent folks even farther west seeking greater treasure. The building of railroads across the country served as an additional catalyst. All of these events take place on land, but what about the waterways?

Norwegian author Olaf Engvig has been examining the contributions of Norwegian seamen who were also integral to building the west. His findings can be read in his new publication, The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, Wapama and Værdalen, available in print or as a Kindle ebook. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Engvig about his life, his maritime passions, and his new book.

Victoria Hofmo: Can you speak a little about where you were born and your early years?

Olaf Engvig: I was born in Trondheim before World War II and grew up in the rural community of Rissa, Norway. My mother was a farmer’s daughter, growing up in Rissa, while my father was an American captain who was drafted as an Army transport officer during World War I. My father was arrested and detained by the Germans during WWII, but they could not find his files because he was an American subject. He was therefore released and kept in house arrest by the occupying German forces. Therefore, I grew up as a Norwegian but was in fact also an American. All my education is from Norway.

Olaf Engvig holding the 2015 Outstanding Scandinavian American Award

Photo courtesy of Olaf T. Engvig
The man himself. Engvig holds the 2015 Outstanding Scandinavian American Award, presented to him by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation in recognition of his “dedication to the restoration and preservation of historic Norwegian ships and boats, and to [his] efforts to document and disseminate Scandinavian maritime history through books and magazine articles [he has] written.”

VH: When did you become interested in maritime history?

OE: I became interested in maritime history through my father due to his maritime background and also learned to sail traditional Norwegian longboats at a young age. My teacher was Jakob Kvithyll, who was the inspiration for the main character in Johan Bojer’s internationally famous book Den siste viking (The Last of the Vikings).

VH: Why did you leave Norway, settling in California?

OE: My wife was accepted at Golden Gate University and later Stanford University and received her master’s and PhD there. We settled in San Francisco, where I had my own study at the J. Porter Shaw Maritime Museum Library. I had spent several years in the U.S. in the late 1950s as a young NATO student at Ordnance Guided Missile School at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. I became an expert on the Nike Hercules radar guidance systems when they were deployed to Norway.

VH: Your newest publication, The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, Wapama and Værdalen, is described as an exploration about how the “Scandinavian Navy” helped the West Coast of the U.S. grow and thrive. What is meant by the term Scandinavian Navy?

OE: The Scandinavian Navy was the nickname for the coastal lumber ships and the men who worked on them. They transported building material down the Pacific Coast to develop San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities in the late 1800s.

VH: How did this Scandinavian Navy help the West Coast grow and thrive?

OE: There was an enormous need for lumber to build the rapidly growing cities along the Pacific Coast and beyond. There were few roads. The only way to transport this lumber was by ship. There were no ports where the sawmills were located, and therefore the lumber had to be loaded by haywires and lumber shoots. The sailors doubled as longshoremen and needed to be big and strong. The Scandinavians were good seamen, experienced with lumber, and most of all, had the size and build to make this possible. More than 80% working this trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s were of Scandinavian descent.

VH: What was unique about the Scandinavian schooners sailed at this time?

OE: The uniqueness was that at this time, San Francisco developed a new kind of ship called a hybrid ship. It was basically constructed with a schooner’s forward part (including the full sail rigging and lumber handling gear), a lumber barge in the middle, and a steamer’s aft section with a steam engine and propeller pushing. This ship type could also be called a push-pull ship.

VH: You also examine how Scandinavian lumber was instrumental in building cities. Do you have any idea about how much lumber was provided or the percentage of timber used to build western cities?

OE: No, but it was enormous quantities, which can be seen in pictures from lumber ports in, for example, Los Angeles.

VH: You include two specific ships in your book, the Wapama and the Værdalen. Why these two?

OE: Both are ships constructed for the lumber trade. They were the two sole remaining ships of this epic transport. They were restored, to be kept for future documentation and interpretation, but unfortunately, the Wapama was broken up. Luckily, due to hard work over 35 years, the hybrid ship Værdalen has been saved. I wanted to share the challenges of restoring historic ships, and these are two good examples.

VH: What did the restoration of the Værdalen entail and what possessed you to take on such a gargantuan task?

Photo courtesy of Olaf T. Engvig
The Værdalen prior to restoration, covered with graffiti and rust in Trondheim.

OE: My family and I worked for 35 years to make this happen. There were many setbacks and disappointments, for example the total lack of monetary support from the Norwegian Riksantikvar and vandalism, but many good people also helped. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to a detailed description of all these challenges.

I knew that the Værdalen was the only remaining ship from the coastal lumber transport generally and the Scandinavian Navy specifically. I felt a responsibility to take this gargantuan task on since nobody else did. The Værdalen, built in steel and iron in Norway in 1891, is a true copy of the Pacific steam schooners, even if she (so far) never sailed on the Pacific Coast. The world now has a genuine sample of a lumber schooner. Most importantly, she is the only true hybrid ship left in the world. She should be on the World Heritage list. Does anybody want to help with making that happen?

VH: Where is the Værdalen now and how is it being used?

OE: The Værdalen is located in the channel harbor at Trondheim for the time being. We sailed her last summer. It is a challenge to find a permanent home for her. My dream is to see her preserved inside a museum building so people can visit her year around. She would only be taken out and sailed at extravaganzas and during major events.

VH: Why is it important to preserve historic ships?

OE: Ships are the best vehicles for sharing the world’s history, in regard to technology, geography, and people. People of today tend to forget that three quarters of the world’s surface is covered by water, and for thousands of years, up until 100 years ago, ships were the only way to transport people and goods around the world.

VH: Your book has a wealth of photos—115. Why were these images so important for you to include?

OE: This is an easy question to answer: A picture is worth a thousand words.

VH: Many have been published for the first time. Where did you find them?

OE: I found them mostly in maritime museums on the Pacific Coast. Most are more than 100 years old. A majority of the newer pictures (e.g., of the Værdalen) are my own.

VH: You are an avid advocate for the restoration of historic ships. Can you speak a little about this passion and what you have achieved?

OE: Born and raised by the mighty Trondheimsfjord, I went to sea after sail training as a deck cadet on the bark Statsraad Lehmkuhl when I was 15 years old. Within a year, I had circumnavigated the world and crossed the equator 12 times.

After my military services working on the Nike missile electronics, I attended the University of Oslo and received my graduate degree in maritime history as the first person in Norway. Upon graduation, I discovered that there was a great lack of knowledge about and willingness to preserve maritime history. I therefore took it upon myself to do something about this.

I started saving historic ships and have not looked back since. In addition to my books, I have published hundreds of articles on maritime topics.

VH: You also organize maritime archaeological expeditions and excavations. What does that entail?

OE: This is something I did 40 years ago. The most exciting aspect is in my book Viking to Victorian that describes expeditions with my daughter Gunn, then 13 years old. For one entire summer, father and daughter sailed around the North Sea in an original, open traditional Norwegian longboat from 1863, a missing link to the Viking ships, without the use of map and compass, in the “way of the Vikings.” A few years later, I sailed the same boat straight across, from Bergen to Shetland ending in Scotland because “the Viking Wind Gods wanted us to go there.” My daughter Gunn and her crew followed in a similar boat. These expeditions, described in the Sagas and in my book, are different forms of excavations that are done trying to collect knowledge of life before written documents existed.

VH: If I came along to an expedition, what would I do and see?

OE: You would be cold, wet, and sometimes feel miserable. Most likely the food would be moldy. But most of all, you would be excited and experience something totally unique that most modern human beings would never get to experience (and probably avoid).

VH: What’s in the works?

OE: My focus is to find a safe home for the Værdalen and my other iron ship, the 1874 tug Oscarsborg, with 127 years as a working tugboat. She has never been restored, and therefore represents a unique document of technological history.

I also hope to save the bow of Pol III, the first ship hit by the Germans during the WWII invasion of Norway. This small neutrality watch boat with one gun tried to stop the invaders during the night of April 9, 1940. She alerted the coastal fortress further up the Oslofjord, that unlike other Norwegian fortresses got four hours to prepare for battle. This delayed the invasion by sinking the heavy cruiser the Blucher, and made it possible for the royal family and the government to evade being captured.

My family is also urging me to write my memoirs.

Other publications of Engvig’s include Legends in Sail and Viking to Victorian: Exploring the Use of Iron in Shipbuilding. To learn more, visit

This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.