The two Jersey guys who rowed across the Atlantic
Back in the late 1800s as industry made inventive strides in making it easier to live in this country, there were two guys from New Jersey, by way of Norway, who would take on a feat of stamina, a feat of strength and perseverance without the help of any new-fangled equipment, just themselves and an oak row boat and they would row across the Atlantic Ocean in 55 days. You got to be kidding right? Nope!
George Harbo was born in Norway in 1864 and by the time he was 22 he settled in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey becoming a clammer in a boat that he built himself.
Frank Samuelson was born in Norway in 1870 and joined the merchant marines, he sailed the world’s oceans and after six or seven years as a boson’s mate he decided that he wanted to settle in New York. On a fishing excursion at the Jersey Shore Frank meets George and they develop a friendship and clam together. Frank settles in Atlantic Highlands as well.
Enter Richard Kyle Fox; he was the editor of the newspaper The National Police Gazette. Mr. Fox had a little P.T. Barnum in him and frequently would throw out challenges for large sums of money to accomplish certain feats that he knew nobody would accept or would be a fool to try. So the legend has it Fox challenges any men to row across the Atlantic and he will provide a $10,000 prize. The $10,000 prize money in 1896 was the equivalent of over $350,000 in today’s money. Mr. Fox would also provide a tow for the row boat from Atlantic Highlands to The Battery in New York City where they would begin this historic journey.
George and Frank accept the challenge, figuring they know the ocean, and let’s face it $10.000 in 1896 is nothing to walk away from. So George and Frank pulled together their life savings and built their oak row boat that had special water resistant cedar sheathing. The boat had two rows for sitting, some water proof compartments, railings to make it easier to right the boat after capsizing and had storage for three pairs of oars. They named the boat “Fox” after their newspaper man who was sponsoring this event. Other newspapers wouldn’t touch the story and other sponsors stayed away because everyone felt that this was just too risky. So on June 6, 1896 George and Frank were towed to The Battery and after a small ceremony they started their rowing to Europe.
The pair arrived 55 days later off the coast of the Isle of Scilly which was the southern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain. So Richard Fox meets the pair in Paris for a dinner in their honor and presents the two with gold medals. No prize money, no fanfare, however the King of Sweden, King Olaf II, gave them 10 Kronos for their trouble which back then was worth about $100. Today the 10 Kronos is worth $1.20.
Of course George and Frank were perplexed, thrilled with their accomplishment but confused at the lack of $10,000. Apparently Richard Fox was kidding, or some say there was never any prize money which doesn’t make sense as why would two guys spend their life savings to row across the ocean?
George and Frank loaded their row boat onto a steamer and headed back to New York and Atlantic Highlands. Rumor has it the ship ran out of coal and wanted to break up any wooden objects on the boat to use as fuel.
George and Frank guarded their boat and when the ship ran out of steam around Cape Cod, legend has it the pair threw the rowboat overboard and rowed back to Atlantic Highlands.
Poor George and Frank, two guys from Jersey who made history with little or no notoriety, no prize money and now no life savings. Their record held up for 114 years when four men did the crossing in 42 days, however their record still stands to this day for a two-man crew. The legend of George Harbo and Frank Samuelson lives on.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 weekend host Big Joe Henry. Any opinions expressed are Big Joe’s own.