Thursday, June 18, 2015


Emigration to Washington Island began at this seashore, by rowing a
smaller boat to reach a larger steam vessel.  Audur Hildur Hakonardottir,
the special exhibit creator, and Lydur Palsson, Eyrarbakki Museum Director,
explain how the outer reef provided needed protection but
also made for a tricky entry for ships.  Despite this, it was one of
the very few places along Iceland's south coast suitable for landing ships.
Here, they are standing atop a sea wall that extends for miles
along this stretch of coastline.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

We returned two days ago from a week's visit in Iceland, and our entire family, from young boys on up, believe our experiences surpassed all expectations.

Among the activities on our itinerary were the attraction, natural and cultural, that any traveler to Iceland will wish to see.   Our trip focused first on Reykjavik (attractions along the waterfront, the many museums, shops, restaurants and one of the city's famous geo-thermally heated swimming pools), but Reykjavik is also where we connected with Gudmundsen family cousins.  Our dinner and visit with them one evening was especially meaningful, a chance to reconnect after quite a number of years without seeing one another.

However, we spent most of our time in the country, doing the so-called Golden Circle, an easy-to-drive circuit in the southwestern quadrant of Iceland.   Distances allow for these natural and historical sites to be visited easily in several days' time.   We took four days, and on one of those days we visited Eyrarbakki.  We believed this to be a highlight of our trip in many ways.

Eyrarbakki's Danish House museum and associated buildings are
situated behind an old seawall built of stone.

Knowing in advance we would meet a number of people representing the historical museum and displays there, we brought along some gifts, including an old life ring from the ferry Eyrarbakki.  Although this didn't exactly fit in the displays already found there, it was graciously accepted.  (We weren't about to take it back home with us!)

Magnus and Thor view model of Eyrarbakki's Danish
trading center of the late 1800s.  Model's location is the same
waterfront setting as the original building.

Our hosts awaited our arrival, and due to their thoughtful preparations and also their great interest in the subject of emigration from Eyrarbakki to Washington Island (then the leading seaport for trade along Iceland's southern coast), we found instant connections through the exchange of information.

Holmfridur Arnadottir  (second left in photo below) by sheer coincidence met Audur Hildur Hakonardottir (far left) when they were seated next to one another on a plane trip.  Hildur at the time was preparing her emigration exhibit, and it was a problem that of 17 persons who supposedly boarded a ship to America from Eyrarbakki, only 15 persons could be later accounted for.  As it turned out, a couple, a young woman who was pregnant, and her husband, elected not to go at the last minute,  and consequently they did not board the ship.  Holmfridur, then, knew that she was a descendant of that couple, knew of a story passed down in her family, but wasn't aware of the date they were to have sailed.  Today she lives not far from Selfoss, the largest town in the area, not far from Eyrarbakki.

Museum Director Lydur Palsson (holding life ring) provided a description of how things were in Eyrarbakki in 1872 when these 17 persons contemplated leaving Iceland.  There was a large store in the town that traded and exchanged merchandise from the farmers of the southern area, which was operated by a Danish merchant.  (This is the store where William Wickman, a Dane who worked as a store clerk, came in contact with a number of young Icelanders, and his later encouragement when he had moved to Milwaukee eventually led to their decision to leave Iceland in 1870, and shortly thereafter, to travel from Milwaukee to Washington Island where Wickman had purchased property.)  The Danish merchant and his family lived in a home that was substantial by Icelandic standards, along with some of his staff.  This finely restored building is now a national monument and is the museum's centerpiece.  Other museum buildings are nearby on the grounds:  a fish drying shed, sheds for sheep and for poultry - and across the open space we visited a very fine maritime museum, because Eyrarbakki was also a well known fishing port.

Egg House owner and his collection at the turn of the last century.

We must also mention the "Egg House," a structure newly built and dedicated in 2004, patterned from historical photos of a building that stood on that same spot over a century earlier.  It housed then - and does again - a mounted bird collection along with various bird eggs, considered an unusual and exemplary collection in its day.  Three Washington Islanders provided financial support (in addition to a national grant) for the design and construction of this new Egg House building. Arni Richter, a grandson of Arni Gudmundsen who departed Eyrarbakki in 1872 as one of the 15, flew to Iceland along with Hannes Anderson and Jeannine Ronning for its dedication.  (Arni was 93 at the time.)

Hildur sought photos and information of those early Icelandic immigrants through emails this past winter, and both Janet Berggren, Island Archivist, and I responded with materials we thought might be helpful.  The exhibit, now completed, is in the upper portion of the Danish house, in what might have been a small bedroom for children or household help.    Old trunks provided seating for our group, as Hildur explained what triggered emigration, and why Washington Island then became a destination for Icelanders.

In 1987, a group from Washington Island of nearly 80 visited Eyrarbakki as part of a "homecoming trip," but then we had less time to look around, and I don't recall the museum then being open.  (The home may then have been privately owned.)  We visited the church, the old school and a community building where we were served coffee and sandwiches, as I recall.   While many of Eyrarbakki's buildings appear to have been there for many years, the town has also undergone changes, with remodeling necessary over time, and the restoration of the Danish house is but one example.

In order to absorb more of the town and its buildings, Hoyt, Thor, Chad and I returned to Eyrarbakki that same early evening (daylight lasts all night in mid-June).  It was low tide.  We walked along the sea wall, then among lava rocks and beach kelp, and further down the shore we examined a large, modern-style concrete pier that was constructed for fishing vessels in the early1960s (but abandoned when it didn't work out).   Before leaving town, Hoyt peered into the local safety building to see what sort of equipment they maintained.  While he was doing so, a woman approached him on her evening walk and asked if she could help.   Hoyt began a conversation with her, and it wasn't long before we realized she was a long-time citizen of Eyrarbakki.

Chance meeting with this Eyrarbakki
resident. We soon found interests in common,
including C. H. Thordarson, Icelandic immigrant
and electrical inventor.  Inga was quite elated,
it seemed, that we named our youngest son Thordur
Gudmundsen - the name of both father and brother of Arni
Gudmundsen, we had learned earlier that day.  The Gudmundsen
name was apparently retained as a family name
(rather than Arni Thordursson, for example), a
departure from the patri-linear naming of
Icelandic children.

Inga Lara Baldvinsdottir, of course, knew of the original first four emigrant men, and of Arni Gudmundsen, the Gudmundsen family, and of the three Washington Islanders who had been in Eyrarbakki for the Egg House dedication.  She also knew Mary Jo's cousins in Reykjavik (also Gudmundsen descendants.)  When I recalled that Mary Jo and I were with a group of Washington Island people in 1987, and we visited Eyrarbakki, she responded with, "I served you coffee!"  

Inga commutes to her job at the National Museum in Reykjavik four days each week, a drive of somewhat less than two hours.  When I mentioned I had written a book about C. H. Thordarson, she became animated, knew exactly who he was, and she also knew something of Thordarson's connection with Rock Island.  Although Thordarson was not from Eyrarbakki (I believe his family home was in the north), his name is well-known to Icelanders.

Low tide, exposed volcanic stones and reefs.  In the center of this
photo taken about 8 pm are the remains of an old Eyrarbakki pier,
and the dark mass to the right was a modern, 1960's pier built to moor fishing vessels.  
There were hopes that Eyrarbakki would grow to nearly 6,000 people if it
regained status as a fishing port, but that never happened.  The town
languished economically until more recently when tourism gave it a push.
Now, one of Iceland's hottest restaurants is adjacent to the museum,
the Ruada Husid, or Red House, which features fine lobster dishes.

It would be hard to improve on the connections we made that day in Eyrarbakki, which added greatly to our overall experience in Iceland.

-  Dick Purinton

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