Shared history and common values

The Norwegian Lady and the tale of two sister cities separated by the Atlantic Ocean

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Virginia Beach’s Norwegian Lady and her twin statue in Moss, Norway, were erected in 1962 in remembrance of those lost at sea in 1891 and as symbols of the friendship between the two sister cities.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association

The year was 1891 and Norwegian sea captain Jordan Jørgensen, like so many who had come before, found his ship, the Dictator, caught in the treacherous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Henry near Virginia Beach. After a struggle to steer through the storm to save the lives of crew, which included his wife and young son, the Norwegian bark was shipwrecked. Several crew survived and made it to shore along with Captain Jørgensen, who clung to a piece of wreckage, but most lost their lives.

The bodies of some of the dead were hauled onto land before the ship completely broke apart, including those of the captain’s wife and child. The bereaved sailor buried them in a Norfolk cemetery before returning to his home in the coastal town of Moss in Norway.

All that remained of the Dictator was the ship’s wooden female figurehead that had washed ashore. This “Norwegian Lady” was erected along the Virginia Beach boardwalk in memory of the deceased and all seafarers who would meet the same tragic fate. By 1953, however, the figurehead had become so eroded and unrecognizable that she had to be removed.

Years passed by, but the legend of Captain Jørgensen and the Norwegian Lady was not forgotten. In 1961 the prominent journalist and beloved troubadour Erik Bye took interest in her story and began a campaign to collect money to erect a new statue in her place. Bye even wrote a song about the Norwegian Lady, and the maritime community in and around Moss was inspired to give generously.

Soon the celebrated Norwegian sculptor Ørnulf Bast was commissioned to create two twin statues, one for Virginia Beach and one for Moss. Bast’s own daughter Dyveke, still a child, stood model for him, as he envisioned her as a grown-up woman. In 1962, the two bronze beauties were unveiled on both sides of the Atlantic, a symbol of the friendship between the two cities and countries.

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall

Over the years the friendship between Moss and Virginia Beach has been celebrated, the bond so strong that the two municipalities officially became sister cities in 1974. Each year there is a celebration of the Norwegian Lady at the Virginia Beach oceanfront, and over the years guests have included Her Majesty Queen Sonja, Dyveke Bast, and the Mayor of Moss, Tage Pettersen.

Most recently, Mayor Pettersen returned to Virginia Beach for the 61st Sister Cities Annual Conference to meet with Mayor Will Sessoms, together with the mayors from Virginia Beach’s four other sister and friendship cities: North Down Country, Ireland; Miyazaki, Japan; Olangapo, Philippines; and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. The conference theme was “Global Opportunities for World Peace,” and as the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, I was curious to talk to Pettersen about the Moss sister city relationship past and present. We decided to meet over a cup of coffee at his beachfront hotel, not far from the Norwegian Lady herself.

Mayor Pettersen grew up in Moss and has passed by the statue there many times in his life, and like all local children, he learned of her story in school. The twin statues forged a somewhat unusual link between the two cities, today very different in many respects. With a population hovering around 30,000, Moss is a small town compared to Virginia Beach with over 451,000 inhabitants. Virginia Beach is a bustling tourist destination with miles of beaches and hundreds of hotels, motels, and restaurants along its oceanfront, three military bases, a number of large corporations, and two major universities. Part of the Port of Virginia, the seventh largest in the United States, it is a bustling metropolis compared to sleepy little Moss on the southeastern coast of Norway.

But the two cities may have more in common than at first glance, with much to share in a changing world. In a country with a population slightly over five million, Moss is home to the third-largest port in Norway with a free-trade zone, as well as innovative companies including oil and gas industry leader Aker Solutions, WinCard (maker of international hotel keycards), and recreational wear textile giant Helly Hansen. It is a modern city where environmental issues are at the forefront, as well as the recent challenges of refugee resettlement and immigration.

In the meetings with Mayor Sessoms, the sister city mayors discussed their vision for the program and where the current emphasis should lie for their respective countries. It was agreed that with a political climate in the U.S. that at the present moment appears confusing or even chaotic from the outside, the mission of Sister Cities International seems more important than ever to ease new fears and concerns from abroad. In troubled times, people-to-people diplomacy can play a stabilizing role, breaking down stereotypes and fears. Mayor Pettersen shared that his own first visit to the U.S. as a young person 35 years ago was already “quite a shock,” as he experienced American people as very “warm and friendly,” as oppose to the glitzy image seen in American television in Norway.

Above all, Mayor Pettersen is impressed by the strong spirit of volunteerism and community engagement in his American sister city and believes his compatriots could gain much by being receptive to a new way of thinking and caring for one another. Language classes and job placement are not enough to integrate newcomers into Norwegian society: a new openness is needed to integrate new immigrants in Moss, who come from 130 countries. An example is American “small talk,” which may seem superficial to Norwegians at first, but Pettersen learned that it is a way to break the ice and lead to conversations of deeper substance and friendship.

Of common concern for all mayors are environmental issues, and here Norway is a country leading the way. One fifth of all cars sold are now electric, and on the municipal level proactive efforts have been made to promote clean energy. Infrastructure has built out so responsible citizens can charge their cars everywhere, parking in the city is free and toll fees have been waived, and data is collected to support claims of improved air quality—and the findings are impressive. With the exit of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, leaders need to work together on the local level to ensure that environmental regulations are enforced, sharing best practices around the globe.

Mayor Pettersen sees many opportunities for the two sister cities to work together. Building out summer exchange programs is an important goal, and he would like to see more boys involved. In general, boys and girls need to be encouraged to see beyond traditional roles and lines of study. He sees boys in Norway lagging behind in languages and humanities, and opportunities for girls to learn more about careers in math and science need to be identified. Sister cities can explore new ways of thinking and create programs of study and internships to involve youth in cross-cultural experiences that will “open their eyes to a new world.”

On my last morning in Virginia Beach, I stood on the boardwalk looking at the Norwegian Lady gazing across the Atlantic to her sister in Moss. I read her inscription: “I am the Norwegian Lady. I stand here, as my sister before me, to wish all men of the sea safe return home.” As I reflected on my four days at the conference and my meeting with Mayor Pettersen from Moss, I realized these words had gained an even deeper meaning for me as a representative for Sister Cities International, as we reach out around the world to comfort and support each other, “building global communities for world peace.” In Virginia Beach and in Moss, the Norwegian Lady continues to stand proudly, a beautiful image for a beautiful idea: may she guide us all on our journey ahead.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.