looking back

Looking Back – Roald Amundsen

By Kinen Carvala

A granite column with explorer Roald Amundsen’s (1872-1928) likeness stands by the Beach Chalet, but the boat it commemorates has been spirited away.

Roald Amundsen admired other polar explorers, especially Fridtjof Nansen, who provided advice not only on how to take scientific observations, but also how to assuage financial backers’ concerns to supplement Amundsen’s modest inheritance.

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A monument to explorer Roald Amundsen sits in the parking lot of the Beach Chalet. Photos by Michael Durand.

Amundsen’s goals were to survey the Magnetic North Pole (which compasses point to) and sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, which required passing north of Canada through the dangerous Northwest Passage, a task which had never been successfully done.

In June 1903, Amundsen and six other men set sail on the 70-feet-long and 20-feet-wide Gjoa (pronounced “Joe” in English), leaving Norway, which was still in a union with Sweden at the time. Amundsen traded with various Eskimo groups in northern Canada and successfully endured multiple winters in the region. 

On Aug. 26, 1905, the Gjoa had gone far enough west to reach open seas and saw the whaling ship Charles Hansson that had sailed north from San Francisco.  In his book, Amundsen quotes the whaling captain asking “Are you Captain Amundsen?” The captain was the first to congratulate Amundsen on completing the Northwest Passage. 

Amundsen reached Nome, Alaska on Aug. 31, 1906. He was met by curious civilians who were eager to look around on board the Gjoa and have Amundsen sign autographs on pieces of wood. 

Amudsen monument

The Gjoa’s propeller had broken in the ice and could only go farther south towards San Francisco slowly by sail.  On Sept. 5, the Gjoa left Nome with Lieutenant Hansen in command, as Amundsen used a faster steamer ship to travel to Sitka Magnetic Observatory in southeastern Alaska, reported the San Francisco Call newspaper. 

Amundsen planned to sneak back onto the Gjoa before its grand entrance into the Golden Gate, but he was spotted early in Oakland on Oct. 10, having come to town by train, reported the Oakland Tribune. Amundsen re-boarded the Gjoa at Bonita Cove at the Marin Headlands on Oct. 19 before a fleet of ships accompanied the Gjoa sailing into San Francisco Bay on Oct. 21. Amundsen was taken on a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by two U.S. Navy captains and their wives to a Norwegian club in San Francisco. 

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Amundsen also received a congratulatory telegraph inducting him into the Saint Olaf Order by the King of Norway, which had become independent the year before, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. At one of the various receptions held in honor of the expedition, newspaper editor Olaf Anders Tveitmoe suggested that the Gjoa should wait for the Panama Canal to open and be the inaugural boat to sail through it. The U.S. Navy held the Gjoa at Mare Island until Norwegians in the Bay Area decided to raise money to buy the Gjoa and hand it over to the San Francisco Park Commission. 

While the ongoing construction of the Panama Canal entered its seventh year, over 15,000 people on July 5, 1909 watched the Gjoa being brought onshore where Golden Gate Park meets Ocean Beach. The Gjoa remained in San Francisco, and Amundsen returned to Norway by commercial transport. Later, Amundsen used another ship to sail to Antarctica to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911.

In June 1928, Amundsen flew north from Norway as part of a rescue mission, only to never been seen again. A bronze relief of Amundsen in profile by Hans Jauchen on a 12-foot tall granite column by Sigvald Asbjørnsen was revealed in Golden Gate Park in March 1930 near the Gjoa. Over the decades, the Gjoa was left exposed to the elements. The boat would be spruced up for visits by dignitaries, like Norwegian royalty in 1939 and 1968. 

San Francisco’s local Swedish newspaper, Vestkusten (“West Coast”), reported on children’s processions to the Gjoa for Norway’s National Day on May 17 in 1964 and 1970. However in 1969, $10,000 was still needed for repairs. A proposal to have the Gjoa join other historic boats at Hyde Street Pier only blocks away from the Norwegian Seamans’ Church was never realized; the boat was not fit to be docked on the water at that point.

In 1971, Norway’s Consul General Finn Keren presented a letter to San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto requesting that the Gjoa be returned to Norway and offered to pay all restoration and transportation costs. On May 4, 1972, the Gjoa was loaded onto the vessel Star Billabong to go back to Norway, as reported in San Francisco Examiner. The Gjoa today is inside the Fram Museum in Norway.

Notes on Spelling: The standard Norwegian spelling today is “Gjøa.” Americans have usually spelled it as “Gjoa.” A formerly posted sign by the boat in San Francisco used “Gjöa” and so did Amundsen’s book about the expedition.

The monument is located on the north side of the Beach Chalet’s parking lot. The Beach Chalet is located at the western edge of Golden Gate Park, on the east side of the Great Highway between Fulton Street and Lincoln Way.(The Beach Chalet did not exist when the Gjoa arrived.)

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