Nils Hansell [1909-1989]: A tale of canals, wonder maps & tall ships

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

(Words from 1905 Erie Canal song)

Most people travel by car, bus, train or plane. Not so Nils Hansell. In the mid-summer of 1947, Upstate New York’s Erie Canal witnessed probably one of the most eccentric & extraordinary of post-war expeditions. Attracting crowds of bemused and curious onlookers, the slim & now balding figure of Nils Birger Hansell, war veteran & erstwhile journalist, carrying “only two changes of blue denim and a toothbrush” negotiated his tiny red kayak along this busy commercial waterway, poorly suited to recreational adventure given its innumerable locks and daily traffic of industrial tankers & barges. It was to be an epic solo voyage that in the course of the ensuing eight weeks would transport Hansell from the northern border town of Buffalo, via Lockport, Rochester, Oneida Lake, Albany & the Hudson River, to the shorelines of downtown Manhattan.

That escapade typified Hansell’s unconventional, free-spirited character and romantic, alternative outlook on life, hallmarks perhaps of the experimental student teaching programme he had earlier enjoyed at the University of Winsconsin or of formative wartime experiences in the US Air Transport Command (ATC).

Such eccentric character traits would thankfully provide the catalyst for two moments of inspired genius & creativity during his later career, one visual  the other cultural, whose influence & legacy, in both instances, still resonate today.

Hansell himself was born in Caldwell, New Jersey on 15th November 1909. The second of five brothers, his parents were first generation Swedish immigrants, Nils V Hansell [1880-1980] and Ingeborg Christoffersson [1883-1978], who had both arrived in the United States in the early years of the 20th Century and married shortly afterwards. The family would later move in to central New York City, and are recorded living in Waldo Avenue in the Bronx in the 1925 New York and 1930 US Federal Censuses. The family later moved to North Stonnington, Connecticut.

Nils may well have acquired his artistic talent & creative flair from his mother Ingeborg who designed the sets and costumes for the Greenwich Village Follies in the early 1920s. His father was a professional mining engineer and oil company executive who travelled extensively in Europe and the Americas in the pre-war period.

Hansell’s secondary education took place in the Bronx at Fieldston High School, Riverdale whence, in 1929, he gained a place to the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a liberal arts undergraduate within their short-lived “Experimental College”. This was a two year college programme, recently established within UW, and designed & led by the progressive British-born philosopher & educationalist, Alexander Meiklejohn [1872-1964].

File:UW Experimental College freshman class, March 21, 1929 - cropped.jpg

Freshmen, Experimental College, University of Wisconsin, March 1929

(Image: University of Wisconsin Archives – Meurer Collection)

((Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons))

Experimental College group outside Adams Hall, University of Wisconsin [1930]

(Image: University of Wisconsin Archives)

((Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons))

First opened in 1927, the Experimental College was an entirely self-governing community. The initial enrollment comprised 119 students with less than a dozen faculties, though by Hansell’s intake in 1929 this had dropped to under 80, with worrying levels of student absenteeism & dropout. The College had a single uniform curriculum, ancient Greek history (“Periclean Athens”) for freshmen and modern America for 2nd year sophomores. Students lived and worked closely with their teachers (known as “advisers”) in Adams Hall, away from the main body of the University. As Hansell himself confirmed, the syllabus involved no exams, no grades & no record of attendance! And all extra-curriclar activities and clubs were entirely student-led. Demographically many of the College’s students, like Hansell, were drawn from outside Wisconsin, particularly from the East Coast, and acquired a reputation for being free-spirited outsiders, who both looked and dressed differently and whose often anarchic lifestyle & radical political views were frequently at odds with UW’s mainstream student population. The idea was to teach the fundamentals of democracy and a deep-seated love of books & learning, but by 1932, mired in growing controversy, Meiklejohn reluctantly agreed to the College’s early closure. During his time at UW, Hansell is recorded on the art staff of the student publication, the Winsconsin Octopus.

Hansell subsequently progressed to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His first step on the professional career ladder came in 1933, when fellow Wisconsin alumnus, William R Kuhns, offered him a post at the American Bankers’ Association Journal. Further journalistic appointments followed at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and with British Movietone News in London & Europe during the late 1930s. In 1940 two much-publicized articles on American retail trends and shopping habits for Printer’s Ink Monthly ((American Food Counter (Feb 1940) and American Main Street (April 1940)) confirmed Hansell’s growing reputation as a very talented journalist.

At around this time he moved to Houston, Texas, where his father was now based, and set up Hansell Transportation Co, operating a fleet of eight tractor-trailer gasoline trucks across Texas and New Mexico. He later sold the business for a tidy profit before being drafted into the US Army. Seconded to the Air Transport Command (ATC), his early wartime career was spent on active service in the North Africa, the Middle East & India as a pilot and air navigator.

A U.S. Air Transport Command Douglas C-47 Skytrain over the Giza pyramids in Egypt, 1943

(Image: U.S. Signal Corps photograph 111-SC-179564)

([Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Working closely with intelligence colleagues, his journalistic talents were subsequently employed in compiling official wartime histories of the ATC’s ten regional Divisions and their respective campaign roles. Additionally, it is said Hansell also authored an account of the February 1945 Yalta Conference. The ATC’s “Brass Hat” Squadron had delivered President Roosevelt to the Allied Conferences in Teheran & Cairo in late 1943 as well as to Yalta. It also later transported President Truman to the post-war Potsdam Conference in July 1945.

Discharged from the forces in Feb 1946, Hansell would spend much time travelling in post-war Europe, most notably enjoying a scenic canoe journey along the Isar and Danube from Munich to Bucharest, one which may well have inspired his rather less picturesque voyage down the Erie Canal a year later!

The romance & bright lights of the New York skyline as surveyed from the waters of Manhattan harbour in early August 1947 may have primed the creative spark that finally ignited six years later, in the summer of 1953, with the design and publication of Hansell’s superbly crafted “Wonder Map” of New York.

Nils Hansell – Wonders of New York [1953]

(author’s collection)

The map’s title & aerial perspective, together with its vibrant pictorial border, offer a clear nod of acknowledgement to predecessor Charles Vernon Farrow’s 1926 Map of the Wondrous Isle of Manhattan:

Charles Vernon Farrow – A Map of the Wondrous Isle of Manhattan [1926]

(author’s collection)

First copyrighted in August 1953 and superbly lithographed by Lutz & Sheinkman, Hansell’s map was originally offered for a price of just $1 and included a remarkable key of 301 notable New York sights & sites.

Hansell’s key takes us from Battery Park (1)…via the pier where canal barges dock (15) – no doubt a familiar spot since his kayak expedition six years earlier…. and onward to Wall Street (23)…

…leading us across the map to conclude our vivid visual tour of the City in the lederhose & bierstube (296) of Yorkville, the 94th Street’s indoor polo facilities (300) and the Museum of the Ciy of New York (301) on the Upper East Side:

Hansell’s map was targeted at both New Yorkers and tourists alike and included an inset map of the City’s Subway System in the lower right corner:

It also offered exhaustive notes & tips on the culture, history, literary associations, local lore & legends, shops, goods, markets, restaurants & tourist attractions of New York’s distinctive districts and neighbourhoods.

Amongst the many surprising factlets we discover the building where redheads run the lifts (260 Madison (179)); the reputed spot where Captain Kidd’s treasure lies buried (77); and the site of Shinbone Alley (96), setting for  Evening Sun columnist Don Marquis’original 1916 creations, Archy (the cockroach) & Mehitabel (the alley cat) & soon to be transferred to the nearby Broadway stage [1957]. Hansell also reveals that 400,000 pigeons inhabited the city (177) and that Trinity Church could claim any whale caught in the river (111). One of the most intriguing references is to the brawny giant figure of 8ft Bowery Mose who was wont to stash a 50-gallon keg of beer in his belt just in case he got thirsty (68):

B’hoy Mose it seems was a popular New York folk hero, a latter-day Clark Kent, whose mythical deeds of daring & fantastical, far-fetched escapades were first brought to the Bowery stage in 1845. The character was apparently based upon real-life Irish printer, Bowery tough & local volunteer fireman, Moses Humphreys.

Like Farrow’s earlier map, Hansell’s New York offers a dramatic panorama of bustling modernity. Overshadowed by the ever-present figure of lady Liberty, its harbour waters are filled with the great ocean going liners of the post-war era, including the Queen Elizabeth, the Liberté, and the Oslofjord together with two recently launched US ships, the SS Constitution and SS United States, the latter now holder of the Blue Riband transatlantic speed record, following her maiden voyage in July 1952.

The equally impressive presence of the aircraft carrier, USS Midway (until 1955 the largest ship in the World) can also be spotted adjacent to the piers of the Williamsburg Bridge. Returned from Mediterranean duties (May 1953) and earlier NATO manouevres (Oct 1952) the vessel had recently been redesignated CV-41, as now denoted on her flightdeck.

As well as Midway’s own fighters, local helicopters & international jet airliners overfly the city’s skies.

With its vibrant colour-scheme, especially the bright yellow afternoon sun reflecting upon the glazed facades of Manhattan’s innumerable skyscrapers & towers, including the new United Nations Building [1952]….

…Hansell’s map captures the bustling energy & dramatic vitality of this thoroughly modern metropolis.

And just as on Farrow’s earlier “Wondrous” map, Hansell’s also incorporates charming pictorial border frieze, also reflecting the hustle & bustle of daily New York life:

And it is especially fitting that Hansell should reserve for himself a special starring feature. In the lower corner of this thoroughly modern map we discover a charming self-portrait of the now balding, forty-something, pipe-smoking artist at work:

In 1954 Hansell would also design the artwork for posters celebrating the Bicentennial of his alma mater, Columbia University. He may also be the same Nils Hansell who edited the magazine, Women’s Modern Home Almanac in the mid-1950s. Hansell eventually retired from IBM in 1971 and spent his final years in Princeton, NJ, where he died in December 1989, aged 80.

New York would also feature centrally in Hansell’s other principal claim to fame. Seven years after his 1953 “Wonder” map, Hansell conceived the idea of Operation Sail (Op Sail), an international gathering of great square-riggers & tall ships, which sought to recapture the romance of the bygone Age of Sail. As well as seeking to foster international goodwill and cooperation, Operation Sail also provided programmes that offered a practical means of encouraging individual personal development & seamanship skills amongst young naval cadets & trainees.

A large two-masted schooner on the upper East River on Hansell’s 1953 “Wonder” Map

The scene anticipates the regular appearance of such vessels in New York harbour during Operation Sail events from 1964 onwards. It is also interesting to note that Operation Sail co-founder, Frank O Braynard, would play a leading role in the subsequent redevelopment of New York’s East River waterfront and foundation of the South Street Seaport Museum

When interviewed later in the Poughkeepsie Journal, Hansell noted how Britain’s Prince Philip had praised the idea behind Operation Sail and had enthused how “in this age of security, comfort and safety, it might be good to give young men a taste of insecurity, danger and adventure” through a rugged sailing experience.

By now Art Director of the IBM Journal of Research and Development and already an enthusistic amateur yachtsman (as well as canoeist) whose first sailing experiences had taken place around the coastal waters of his father’s native Sweden during his childhood, the inspiration for the Operation Sail had come to Hansell whilst observing the United States Coast Guard’s square-rigged cutter, Eagle, moored on a Manhattan dockside. Idly musing on the statuesque barque, he had suddenly been overtaken by a vision of the surrounding waters of New York harbour crowded with similar vessels.

The US Coast Guard’s Eagle under full sail

With the tireless assistance & support of fellow New York executive & naval historian, Frank O Braynard [1916-2007], the pair soon had the backing of the US Navy & Coast Guard and the endorsement of Thomas J Watson Jr (Chairman of IBM). They were equally fortunate to secure the high-profile patronage of both Britain’s Prince Philip and US President J F Kennedy who agreed to become Operation Sail’s Patron in May 1963, but who would sadly not live to see the project come to final fruition. Operation Sail was finally born a year later, in July 1964.

Operation Sail representatives meet President Kennedy in the White House Oval Office May 10th 1963

Chairman of Operation Sail, Emil “Bus” Mosbacher, presents a formal request for the President to become the organisation’s Patron. Frank Braynard can be seen directly to the right of JFK. Nils Hansell looks on from behind the President’s right shoulder

(Image: Courtesy of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum (Ref: AR7896-B))

A further photograph of this same event, illustrated in Braynard’s book, The Tall Ships of Today in Photographs,  shows Hansell (third from right) rather more clearly.

As one of the headline events of the New York World’s Fair, the Eagle led an International Parade of 23 tall ships & schooners from over a dozen countries which sailed in formation up the Hudson River and weighed anchor along the Manhattan shoreline. Operation Sail has organized five similar international gatherings in New York during the ensuing 50 years. The tangible benefits of such international goodwill events were perhaps felt most keenly in 1976, when Russian cadets took part in the event at the height of the Cold War. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan, celebrating the arrival of Operation Sail’s Tall ships in New York harbour in July 1986, highlighted these same underlying values and the project’s wider symbolism:

It will speak to us of the past, of the days when great ships like these dropped anchor in our harbours and unloaded tea from China, whale oil from open seas, and yes, immigrants from all around the world. It will speak to us of present and future amity between our nation and the many nations that have sent vessels here today to lend their beauty…to our rejoicing. Somehow men have always found moving the sight of these vessels of wood and metal and canvas…Perhaps it has something to do with the knowledge that nothing binds sailing ships, nothing holds them back, that they can travel across the vast and trackless sea. Perhaps indeed these vessels embody our conception of liberty itself: to have before one no impediments, only open spaces; to chart one’s own course and take the adventure of life as it comes; to be free as the wind – as free as the tall ships themselves…

Sentiments with which Nils Hansell would doubtless have concurred. Hansell might perhaps have recognized something of his own earlier life experiences in Reagan’s observations on liberty.

It is perhaps best left to Frank Braynard to sum up:

Nils taught me a great deal –  about living, about how important enthusiasm was, and about being persistent, determined and always optimistic….he was an outgoing person, a man of ideas….He had a way of making contacts that helped him make his dreams happen…

Frank O Braynard – The Tall Ships of Today in Photographs, ix [Dover Publications Inc, New York, 1993]

20th Century pictorial cartography and the world of Tall ships & international sailing (and far more besides) would have been immeasurably impoverished without the creative genius, inspirational dreams & determined personal vision of Nils Birger Hansell [1909-1989].

He was gregarious man of enormous charm & charisma, who, as the song says “always knew his neighbour…and always knew his pal”. But then he was one of the few people who could truly say, with hand on heart, that he had himself once navigated the Erie Canal!


David Rumsey Map Collection

Alexander Meiklejohn: Experimental College [1932/2001]; E David Cronin & John W Jenkins: The University of Wisconsin – A History 1925-1945 – Politics, Depression & War – Vol III [1994], Ch.3 Camelot by the Lake, pp 143-211; Frank O Braynard – The Tall Ships of Today in Photographs [1993], Introduction, pp ix-xi; Stephen J Hornsby:Picturing America – the golden age of pictorial maps  [2017], p 244 & Pl.155 (p 260)