On June 26th, 1881, an unusual event occurred in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula when a large and powerful sailing ship drifted ashore in a storm. The Jamestown had been drifting unoccupied on the high seas for months. When it ran aground, it was a blessing for the Icelanders who occupied the village. Not only was the ship constructed mostly of wood, it held a large shipment of hardwood in its cargo hold. In the coming years, the ship would be disassembled and the hardwood would be used in construction of houses all over the country.
The Jamestown was among the larger sailing vessels that had been built at that time. It was laden with wood, and was on its way to England to lay tracks for a railroad. The voyage was to be the captain’s last, and easiest. The ship set sail with the cargo from the United States, but encountered trouble in the form of a severe storm in the North Atlantic. The rudder broke in the storm, and while the crew was rescued, the ship was lost.
By the time the ship was found off the coast of Iceland, it had been stranded at sea for months without a rudder or crew. “Along came a southwester and the ship was broken up and was beached, so it was possible to claim everything from the ship and make use of it,” said Tómas Knútsson, an enthusiast of the Jamestown ship. “It was a natural gift from God, all this wood.”
Tómas belongs to an interest group dedicated to the history of the ship, and they meet two to three times a year. They have held two exhibitions where objects from the ship which have been dredged from the sea are put on display. “We let the Regional Museum have it all together, like, for example, the sail winch, a really cool wheel, and the anchor,” Tómas said.
The group has been working hard in recent years to figure out what houses in Iceland were built from timber from the ship. “Gröndalshús in Reykjavík is one, and the bridge floor in Elliðárbrún,” Tómas said. “It went all over Suðurland and Suðurnes. There are some houses in Keflavík, some in Sandgerði, one house in Hafnir, one in Hafnarfjörður, Vatnleysuströnd and something in Grindavík, too. The pulpit in Hvalsneskirkja is made of mahogany that came from the captain’s suite.”
The group dreams of being able to take the project further. The next step would be to make copper plaques to attach to houses made of the timber with an inscription stating as much.
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