The Vasa: an elegant seventeenth-century warship in Stockholm

Stockholm, Vasa
Sweden’s capital Stockholm has a lot to offer-fine dining, good shopping, lovely parks, access to some interesting day trips (the old Viking capital of Uppsala being my favorite) and a unique museum. The Vasa Ship Museum is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why. It houses a beautifully preserved 17th century warship.

The Vasa was meant to be the pride of the Swedish fleet at a time when the nation was one of Europe’s major powers. The galleon was 226 feet long, carried 145 sailors and 300 soldiers, and sported elegant woodwork over much of its exterior. Its 64 cannon could blast out 588 pounds of iron from port or starboard, giving it more firepower than any other ship then in existence. It must have been a major letdown when it sank barely a mile into its maiden voyage in 1628. It turns out the whole thing was top heavy.

While the Vasa was a bad ship, it’s an awesome museum piece. The cold water, silt, and pollution of Stockholm harbor kept it safe from microorganisms that would have eaten it up. When archaeologists raised it from the sea they retrieved thousands of artifacts such as weapons, utensils, coins, clothing, tools, and hemp sails and rigging. Some parts of the ship still had flakes of paint and gold leaf adhering to them, so its once-vivid colors could be reproduced in a scale model in the museum.

This year is the 50th anniversary of its raising from the bottom of the harbor. This was a tricky operation that required 1,300 dives and a great deal of delicate underwater work in low visibility. Divers had to dig six tunnels under the shipwreck in order to run steel cables through them and attach them to pontoons on the surface. After that, the pontoons lifted it to the surface without a hitch.

The next step was to reassemble the ship. All of the nails had rusted away, so the archaeologists were left with a massive jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing. Some 32,000 cubic feet of oak timber and more than 26,000 artifacts had to be preserved, cataloged, and archived. To house the restored ship, the Vasa Ship Museum opened in 1990.

Now the Vasa may get some companions. Five other ships dating from the 16th to the 18th century have been discovered during the renovation of one of Stockholm’s quays. This was the site of the old shipyards where the Vasa was built. They’re said to be in good condition and some are as long as 20 meters (66 feet).

If you love the sea, you’ll also want to check out Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum and Madrid’s Naval Museum. And if you’re going to Stockholm, check out our budget Stockholm guide.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

The Jesse James farm

Jesse James, Frank James
Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.

The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.

This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.

All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.

%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.

Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.

Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.

Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”

After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.

In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.

At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!

Nimbin: Australia’s Answer to Woodstock

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Sydney, Australia visiting my good friend Sarah. Rather than hang around in Sydney, we elected to road trip up to Byron Bay. Byron is a great little beach town in the northern portion of New South Wales and we had a great trip. But that’s a post for another day. Because, while we were in Byron Bay, we took a side trip to Nimbin. Everyone in Sydney had told us that if we were heading up to Byron Bay, that we had to go to Nimbin. It’s a “must see,” they told us. And it has that reputation for one reason and one reason only. Marijuana.

It’s about an hour drive to Nimbin from Byron Bay. As you leave the coast, you enter a landscape made up of farms, meadows and rolling hills. It’s breathtaking. The trip is along winding country roads and you wonder if you’ll ever encounter a town as things become more and more rural. Eventually, though, seemingly out of nowhere, the village of Nimbin appears.

We pulled right into the village and parked on the main street. The street was lined with shops specializing in hemp products, organic foods, information on medical marijuana and tourists. By no means were the sidewalks packed, but we certainly were not the only out-of-towners popping into Nimbin to see the hippies, snap some photos and check out the cannabis-crazed town.

It’s worth noting at this point that marijuana is illegal in Australia. Penalties and policies vary by state, but typically possession of small amounts can result in nothing more than a warning. For years, police looked the other way in Nimbin as marijuana sales grew more and more common. The annual Mardigrass festival brought tourists (and money) into Nimbin as people gathered to promote the repeal of cannabis prohibition. But as the drug trade grew and gangs took over the trafficking, police began to crack down and close establishments that allowed the sale or use of cannabis.

Still, everyone I spoke to said that you could buy marijuana with great ease in Nimbin. One person even told me that he was accosted by a girl with a suitcase full of cannabis looking to make a sale. Of course, neither Gadling nor I promote or encourage drug use or the violation of the laws of your country or a country in which you are traveling. I’m telling you this story purely for entertainment and educational purposes.

We strolled the main street for a bit, poked our heads into shops selling hemp clothing and pot leaf necklaces and mostly laughed at how Nimbin looks like the set of a bad movie about a hippie town. But Nimbin is very real and people take their cannabis products and promotion seriously. No one offered us drugs while on the main street, though. In fact, a police car was parked right in the middle of town and officers were walking amongst the tourists. And shopkeepers will thank you not to ask them about where you can purchase narcotics.

We were about to head back to Byron Bay, feeling a tad like failures for not having had the “true” Nimbin experience of having been offered marijuana, when I noticed a sign next to a cafe. It pointed towards “Mingle Park.” On a whim, I decided to walk into this back alley behind the cafe. American hip hop music was blasting from the speakers inside. Immediately upon reaching the “park” (it was more of a vacant lot), two young men asked us if we were looking to buy.

Discretion being the better part of valor, I played dumb. “What are looking for?,” one of them asked us. “What do you have?,” I replied.” In response, he unfurled a large plastic bag filled with marijuana. Clearly, he was comfortable with public transactions. I inquired some more about prices, quality and the like. We did this all under the clear blue Australian sky in an open space loosely occupied by about ten people leisurely milling about. I felt exposed. But I also felt like my trip to Nimbin was complete.

What happened next? Did I leave Nimbin with a special souvenir? Whoa, are you a NARC?

I guess some stories are best left unfinished. And I think this is one of them.

Check out some of my photos from Nimbin in the gallery below.
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From the New Europe: Three hemp plants? No problem in the Czech Republic

On Friday after a hearty Czech meal, my Mom popped the question. She asked me if I could somehow manage to get her a hemp plant or two. At first, I thought it was a trick question. What do you answer? So I said what any good Czech daughter would say. “Sure Mom. I think I can manage that.”

I know she has no intentions of actually using it for “marijuana-smoking purposes,” but her request still surprised me. She explained she wanted to use hemp for medical purposes, because she believes hemp products have magic powers. I don’t know about magic powers, but I do think it is kind of cool to be the daughter of a Czech hemp grower.

Drug possession has been top of mind in the Czech Republic in the last couple of weeks. Historically, the laws here have been very vague. Until now, it was illegal to carry “more than a small amount of drugs.” Yes, you get the point. The definition of a “small amount” varies greatly and opens doors for all kinds of bribery.

Finally, it looks like the Czech Republic will settle on limiting punishment to a fine for growing up to three hemp plants or carrying up to 20 joints, a gram of hashish or 0.5 grams of methamphetamine (pervitin). Any caught exceeding those limits would face criminal prosecution and a possible prison term, the Prague Daily Monitor reports. Soon, I might be the daughter of a woman who had to pay a fine for drug possession.