Leif Erickson and Columbus Discover Rochester

Leif Erickson and Columbus Discover Rochester

[Christopher Columbus, 99 Exchange Blvd, Rochester Civic Center, Hall of Justice. Description: White marble sculpture; Sculptor: Feruccia Vezzoni; Annotation: The sculpture was erected by the Civic Center Commission and was unveiled during a Columbus Day luncheon sponsored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. The Civic Center Commission bought the bust for $1,500 and presented it in recognition of contributions to the area by the local Italian community. The work is a copy of one that Vezzoni did for the New York State Capitol in Albany.   From a Local History brochure at the Rochester Public Library. Other images provided by Michael Nighan] Nighan wants to very clear that he does not see Columbus as a “hero” as Columbus was depicted in the 1890s.

99 Exchange Blvd, Rochester Civic Center, Hall of Justice. Photo: David Kramer

By Michael J. Nighan

In the late 19th. Century, the history taught to American school children hinged on two dates, two events and two men.  1776 – The Declaration of Independence – and George Washington (replete with his cherry tree and his habitual truthfulness).  And 1492 — The Discovery of the New World — and Christopher Columbus (abounding with his boundless ”ocean blue”).

In 1876 the United States had commemorated 1776 with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  The first of a global string of World’s Fairs to be held in the United States, where massive exhibition halls displayed America’s power and prosperity, deified Washington and the other Founding Fathers, and charted the country’s rise from colonial backwater to emerging industrial superpower. (1)

But as the late 1880s rolled around, various politicians and business leaders began to lobby Congress to organize an even bigger event.  A truly international event.  A World’s Columbian Exposition to commemorate the 400th. anniversary of the “discovery” of America.

World’s Columbian Exposition Grounds

New York City, St. Louis, Washington, DC and Chicago quickly became the leading contenders for the Exposition, each hoping to capitalize on the publicity  (and the economic benefits) that would accrue to the host city.  With the choice ultimately based on which city could promise the more lavish financial support and provide the most appropriate physical setting for the event, the contest quickly became one of New York City versus Chicago, with Chicago finally receiving the Congressional nod in 1890.  Now it was up to that city to make good on its promises.

Still recovering from the Great Fire of 1871, in which over three square miles of the city were destroyed, Chicago’s civic and political leaders saw the Exposition as a way to show that America’s second biggest city was back and could put on a first class show.  To that end, invitations went out to countries around the globe to participate and showcase their life styles, manufacturing and history.

All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by

– John Masefield

Among the 45 countries who eventually agreed to provide exhibits, and in many cases complete buildings or pavilions, Spain (prodded by the US State Department and seeking to recapture past glories as its empire crumbled) announced it would build full-sized replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and re-create Columbus’ voyage to the New World IF the United States would help defray the expense.

The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria at the World’s Columbian Exposition

Of course not everyone was a Columbus fan.  In Scandinavia, and among that region’s immigrants to the American Midwest, Leif (“The Lucky”) Erikson and the Vikings were hailed as the true “discoverers” of America, arriving here a good half-millennium ahead of Columbus. (2)   Although the Viking landing in Newfoundland around 1000 AD wouldn’t be officially confirmed until the mid-20th. Century, evidence supporting the likelihood of their arrival had been piling up for years. The astonishing discovery in 1880 of an almost fully-intact Viking longship buried near Gokstad, Norway had shown that their ships’ designs were certainly capable of making a voyage to the coast of North America.

Seeking to demonstrate they weren’t playing favorites with Spain, the US government requested that the Swedish government (Norway being under Swedish control at the time) loan the Gokstad ship for exhibition at the Chicago Fair.  Given the fragility of the craft after being buried for ten centuries, this request was politely turned down.  However, when word that Spain was building replicas of Columbus’ fleet reached Norway, the idea of replicating the Gokstad ship and sailing IT to America rapidly gained support.

Leif and Chris. The so-called Discoverers

In the end, both groups constructed their ships.  Both groups sailed their ships to America.  And by coincidence, aided by geographic necessity, both the Columbus ships and the Viking vessel would dock at Rochester within a few days of one another in the early summer of 1893.

At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided

–  Herman Melville

Back in Chicago, problems were piling up.  The fair grounds, located in Jackson Park along Lake Michigan, had grown to a whopping 690 acres, six times the size of Highland Park.  The decision to construct 200 temporary buildings from the ground up, including 14 massive exhibit halls in neo-classical style; AND to cover each building in white plaster and wire them for 100,000 of the newly-invented electric light bulbs (3); AND adding in the digging of a network of lagoons and canals; PLUS the creation of a huge entertainment midway (featuring a 264 foot tall revolving wheel capable of carrying 2,160 passengers at a time, designed by and named after George Washington Ferris, Jr.), saw the plans to open the fair in 1892 swirl rapidly down the drain.  When opining day finally arrived, the calendar read May 1, 1893.

The wind and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigator

– Edmund Gibbon

Not until 1892 did construction of the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria begin in Spain.  But within months the ships, known as caravels, were completed, launched and readied for their voyage to the New World in the spring of 1893.    While the 86 foot long Santa Maria would make most of the trip under her own sail, the Spanish navy, lacking some of the spirit of their sea-faring predecessors, opted to tow the Nina and Pinta across the Atlantic.

Arriving at New York harbor on April 25, the Spaniards were greeted by President Grover Cleveland, tens of thousands of cheering spectators, cannon firing, a massive naval review…and pouring rain.  After spending three weeks as guests of the city, the ships were again hooked up and towed – this time by the American navy (4) – out to sea and up the East Coast of the United States and Canada and down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec where another gala reception was held, with towing duties handed off to the British navy.   Moving on to Montreal, where some embarrassment was generated when it was noticed that the ships were still flying American flags, yet another enthusiastic round of welcoming ceremonies ensued.  Finally, on June 22 the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria once more set sail (actually they were still under tow) and entered the waters of Lake Ontario.

On June 25 the ships arrived at the mouth of the Genesee River and were tied up near the site of today’s O’Rorke Bridge.  “DISCOVERY OF CHARLOTTE   The Santa Maria and Her Consorts Enter the River at Dawn” headlined the Democrat and Chronicle.

5/16/1893, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The Columbus Ships Arrive in Charlotte

Arriving earlier than expected, instead of being greeted by the mayor of Rochester and a host of dignitaries, the Spanish commander of the fleet and the captains of each of the three ships were met by George Sweeney, manager of Charlotte’s Hotel Ontario, Sweeney’s meeting being describing in the press thusly:

After he had made a few signs such as Columbus made to the Indians when they met for the first time, he learned that the brave Spaniard could converse in English.  He gave a heartfelt sigh of relief when he made this important discovery, and made himself particularly agreeable to the party until 9 o’clock when Mayor Curran and a delegation of members of the chamber of commerce reached the beach.  Then he entertained them all at breakfast.

Hotel Ontario in Charlotte

During the two days that the ships were docked at Charlotte, while a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered to gawk and several thousand of the more curious onlookers toured the ships, the Spanish commander and his officers toured Rochester.  Escorted in a private rail car from the beach to downtown (it was the age of REAL mass transit after all) the trip included a luncheon with Daniel Powers at his famous Main Street art gallery.  So large was the crowd back at Charlotte that when the trains stopped running at midnight, a thousand or two were stranded at the beach with no means of getting home.

No doubt tired of weeks of banquets and speeches, the Spaniards nevertheless had to go through one more formal dinner back at the Hotel Ontario.  A less-than-invitation only affair, open to anyone willing to pay $5 for a seat in the dining room.

Charlotte Historical Marker next to the site of today’s O’Rorke Bridge

On June 26, this last day in port, only a small number of visitors were allowed on the ships as the crews prepared to get underway.  Reporting later on the day’s events, the Democrat and Chronicle recounted an alternative method of access employed by one member of the public:

It is said that a woman cannot climb a tree, but it was demonstrated yesterday that she can walk up the perpendicular side of a caravel with the agility of a cat, and climb over the side in spite of the resistance of three or four policemen and as many Spanish sailors.

As a last gesture of courtesy, the Spanish commander allowed a select group of local bigwigs to sail (or rather be towed) aboard the Santa Maria for a short cruise as she and her companion ships left the harbor bound for Toronto, the Welland Canal and ultimately, Chicago.  A mile or so out on the lake the locals were transferred to a waiting tugboat and returned to Charlotte, Mayor Curran, like any good politician, being the last to leave.   The visit of the three ships is commemorated today in Charlotte by an historical marker located on River Street north of the O’Rorke Bridge.  Although the commemoration date is off by 100 years, the marker apparently includes what may be a photograph of the Santa Maria docked in Charlotte.

Being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned

– Samuel Johnson

Meanwhile, back in Norway, the replica of the Gokstad ship, its construction completed and now bearing the somewhat uninspired name “Viking”, set sail on April 30, 1893.  In this case “set sail” was a literal description for, unlike the Nina and Pinta, the 75 foot long Viking would be sailed and rowed (like the Gokstad ship she had been modeled after, she carried 16 pairs of oars) by its captain, Magnus Andersen, and his 11 man crew, every mile across the Atlantic to the New World.  On May 10 the ship was caught in a week of raging seas off the north coast of Scotland giving the crew ample opportunity to prove both their seamanship and the sturdiness of the sleek longship design  which they believed (but which as-of-yet had not been confirmed) their ancestors had sailed to North America almost 900 years before.

Out on the Atlantic in calmer seas, the Viking sailed smoothly, occasionally being passed by a steamship.  If offers of a tow were made they were politely, but forcefully, refused. “Those Columbus washtubs which are as broad in the bow as in the beam may advertise their paltriness by being towed” a Viking crewman was later quoted as saying, “but you won’t catch the Viking following their example!”

The Viking’s Captain and Crew

 The coast of Newfoundland, once the destination of Leif Erikson, was sighted on May 27, and over the next two weeks the Viking fought gales and heavy rain as it traveled south along the American coast, finally arriving at New York City on June 17 to be greeted by a fleet of excursions boats, tugs, yachts and the American man-of-war, the USS San Francisco.  Finally forced to accept a tow, the Viking entered the harbor at the head of this imposing armada.

At this point the types of “receptions” afforded the Spaniards and the Norwegians began to vary widely.  Taking a tourist’s stroll over the Brooklyn Bridge one night, a more-or-less sober Captain Andersen and four members of his crew were attacked by a gang of men described as “Columbus adherents”, and although the aggrieved party, the Norwegians spent the night in jail.  In police court the next day they were held on $1,000 bail.  Which it can be assumed that the city fathers quickly paid as Andersen and his men were due at City Hall later that day for their official welcome.

To reach a port we must set sail.  Sail, not tie at anchor.  Sail, not drift

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Viking’s path to the Columbian Exposition now led up the Hudson River, west along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal to Buffalo, and out across Lakes Erie and Michigan to Chicago.  The trip began well enough, with cheering crowds at every stop along the Hudson.   But in Canajoharie matters came to a crashing halt when the tug towing the Viking was wrecked when it rammed into another canal boat.  The Viking sprang a leak and, with low bridges to pass under and lowlifes to deal with, the Viking’s crew had to bail while enduring the occasional wisecrack and insult directed their way.

With Rochester perhaps still recovering from the festivities surrounding the arrival of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria less than a week before, and despite the Viking’s imminent arrival and reports of the warm welcome the ship had been receiving elsewhere, on June 30 the Democrat and Chronicle reported on the city’s less-than-enthusiastic plans;

Nothing definite has been done as of yet about a reception in this city. . .Mayor Curran said yesterday that a dinner will probably be gotten up for the officials and  crew of the Viking ship.  A meeting of the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce will be held this afternoon at which some sort of reception will probably be arranged.

Although expected to arrive in downtown Rochester the evening of July 1, and with a crowd estimated in the thousands lining the banks and bridges of the Erie Canal until well after dark, the Viking was a no show. The disappointed spectators were told they could wander over to City hall to shake hands with Capt. Andersen who had taken the train from Lyons to attend a hastily-organized reception and luncheon at the Powers Hotel.  Informed of the recent visit to Charlotte by the Columbus fleet, the newspapers reported that the captain;

said the he was sorry that he had not yet been able to meet the commander of the Spanish caravels, because he wanted to be assure the commander that the Viking had not been brought to this country to demonstrate that Norwegians were the first to discover the new world, but as a compliment to the great United States.

Just after midnight, with still no sign of the Viking, Capt. Andersen, the mayor and various dignitaries boarded two steam yachts and traveled east on the Erie Canal in search of the missing ship.  Meeting up with her in Brighton, they escorted the Viking to Rochester where at 4:40 am on July 2, the ship was finally moored just west of the aqueduct (today’s Broad Street Bridge) near the Church of St. Luke.

The Viking’s Mooring Site on Today’s West Broad Street

Then, to the undoubted consternation, confusion, disappointment and anger of the assembled civic and business leaders, Capt. Andersen announced that the Viking could only stay in Rochester for another 20 minutes as the ship was committed to being in Cleveland to participate in their July 4th. celebration.  A request from that city’s large Norwegian population which could not be ignored.

So at 6:00 am, with the sun rising astern, and leaving behind thousands of soon-to-be-disappointed Rochsterians who would wake up to discover that she’d come and gone, the Viking was towed out of town to Buffalo, where after a stay of just 90 minutes, during which Capt. Andersen was heard to remark,” I’d rather cross the ocean ten times than to come down that canal.  It’s been collisions, collisions all the way.  It’s knocked the boat loose and made her leak!”, and like the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria before her, off the Viking went to Lake Erie, to Lake Michigan and finally to Chicago.

Beware of little expenses.  A small leak will sink a great ship

 – Benjamin Franklin

Perhaps Mother Nature was also honked off by the Viking’s abrupt departure. Because the next day Rochester experienced one of the worst electrical storms in its history.  Four hours of almost continual thunder and lightening, with several buildings being struck.

The Viking became a popular attraction at the Exposition and, having been presented to Chicago as a gift, spent several years on Lake Michigan, eventually falling into disrepair and even sinking at least once.  Repeatedly rebuilt, she’s now on display in Geneva, Illinois under the auspices of the Friends of the Viking Ship. (5)

The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria didn’t fare as well.  With the closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition in October 1893, the ships were left floating in one of the lagoons which had been retained as part of Jackson Park.  With little or no maintenance, by 1915 the ships were in a sorry state.  Particularly the Nina and the Pinta who it was discovered were, unlike the Santa Maria, simply rebuilt rotting hulks that the Spanish government had utilized to save money.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Aug 26, 1913. It appears that no second visit by the caravels to Charlotte ever took place.

That year, someone had the brainstorm of offering use of the ships to the organizers of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where the opening of the Panama Canal would be officially celebrated.  The wildly impractical plan called for the ships to be sailed/towed back through the Great Lakes and down the Atlantic to Panama, through the canal, and then up to San Francisco.

Setting aside the impossibility of the decaying ships ever reaching San Francisco under the best of conditions, their departure was delayed so late that even the pretense of their going was dropped.  With the Panama-Pacific Exposition scheduled to close in December, the ships didn’t leave Chicago until October.  Running into stormy weather, the Nina and Pinta began leaking badly, barely making it to Cleveland, Ohio where, after participating in that city’s Columbus Day celebrations and after nearly sinking, they underwent emergency repairs and were towed back to Chicago. The two ships finally gave up the ghost and sank at their moorings in 1919.

The Santa Maria continued the journey through Lake Ontario, but there seems to be no record that it came anywhere near Charlotte.  With winter coming on it finally made it to Boston where, so the story goes, a crew made up of Harvard students took over as her crew.  Plans to tour East Coast ports fizzled out and after two years tied up in Boston harbor, the Santa Maria struggled back to the St. Lawrence where, following several months impounded in Canada for inability to pay docking fees, the ship finally made it to Lake Ontario in 1918, apparently once more sailing past Charlotte without as much as a backwards glance.  Repeatedly patched up, she continued her career as a Chicago tourist attraction   until May 1951 when she was destroyed by fire. But Rochester wasn’t done with the Santa Maria yet.  There would be at least two more visits to town, one literally a drive-by appearance, by other ships bearing that name.

With the advent of the 1992 Quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage, more replicas of his three ships were built for the movies, for tourists and for various celebrations and observances.  As part of the festivities, the aptly-named Ohio state capital of Columbus decided to create a new riverfront park and in a moment of questionable inspiration paid an Albany shipyard $2,000,000 to build the city a full-size replica of the Santa Maria.  The completed vessel was delivered in 1991 by the expedient of cutting the ship in half, piling it on two tractor trailers, and driving it to Columbus via the New York State Thruway.

Then, in 2019, yet another replica of the Santa Maria docked at Charlotte.  Built in Spain, the Nao Santa Maria (“nao” being a medieval term for a medium-size sailing vessel) arrived in June, having repeated her predecessor’s journeys down the St Lawrence River and across Lake Ontario. (6)

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 03 Jul 2019. The Nao Santa Maria at the port of Rochester. JIM CALLAHAN

As to the World’s Columbian Exposition, it ran from May through October 1893, reaping fat profits for itself and for local merchants by attracting over 27,000,000 visitors to Chicago.  Even accounting for repeat visitors, this was a truly extraordinary figure given that the population of the United States at the time was only 63,000,000 and that in that pre-auto/pre-plane era, travel was restricted to train, boat, horse or foot.  Celebrations over the success of the Exposition were significantly dampened however when the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, Sr., was assassinated on Oct. 28, causing the event to close two days early out of respect.  Many of the Exposition buildings, never intended to be permanent, were destroyed in a fire in early 1894. With a handful of exceptions, the remaining buildings were torn down over the next few years and the land returned to a park setting.  The White City was no more.



1) The most notable event at the Centennial Exposition was the first public presentation of an invention by a man named Bell.  A mechanical device for sending a person’s voice over a wire between distant points.  He called it the “telephone”.

(2) Both are wrong of course.  As anyone of true Irish descent knows, St. Brendan arrived here first. In the 6th. Century AD!

St. Brendan – The REAL discoverer of America

(3) This combination of plaster and the miracle of electric lights gave rise to the Exposition’s most famous nickname, “The White City”.

(4) The Santa Maria was towed by the cruiser USS Newark.  Ironically, five years later the Newark would participate in sinking the Spanish fleet in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. See Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. 

(5) While not the last Viking ship to sail the Great Lakes, it was the last to visit Rochester.  In 2016, another longship, the Draken Harald Hårfagre sailed from Norway, journeying down the St. Lawrence River and along the north side of Lake Ontario on its way to Chicago, and then returned via Lake Ontario, bypassing Charlotte and entering the Erie Canal via Oswego to travel east.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Jun 11, 2010. Senior deck hand Bradley Johnson of Detroit, right, tosses a bow line from the deck of the Pinta to Nina first mate Vic Bickel of Folsom, Calif., as replicas of the Nina and Pinta sailed into the Port of Rochester for a stop that includes tours of the boats this weekend.

(6) Rochester wasn’t done with the Nina and the Pinta either.  In 2006, 2012, 2014, and again in 2015, replicas of these two ships docked at Charlotte for the enjoyment of sightseers and to the disdain of Native American protestors.

Native American protester pointing out they were here long before Europeans discovered them.

2017 Red spray paint was scrawled on the bust and monument on Collier Street. WBNG 12 News, Binghamton, NY. While Nighan did not endorse the vandalism, Nighan wants to very clear that he does not see Columbus as a “hero” as Columbus was depicted in the 1890s, a period of American imperialism.


Columbus is also marked on 50 Chesnutt Street. The Columbus Building, downtown Rochester, NY


Want to Make America Great Again? Respect Contributions of Native Americans

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.

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