When you're rich, people listen to you. And you get to build monuments to wacky ideas with no proof behind them.
You can see proof of that at the far end of the Commonwealth Avenue mall, where a Romanicized version of Leif Erikson forever peers towards the Charles River and the Common - and in a small byway off River Road and South Street in Weston, at the Waltham line, where an odd stone tower in a small clearing marks the spot where Leif Erikson founded a city that lasted 350 years and at one time had a population of 10,000 people.
At least, according to Eben Horsford, a Harvard chemistry professor who became rich by inventing a new kind of baking powder, one that not only worked far better than older versions, but which was stable enough to be carried on the long voyages of a population expanding westward.
Before he quit Harvard to enjoy his riches, Horsford was part of a Cambridge social set that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Thomas Appelton, who believed in a theory that the Vikings had visited and settled the New World long before that Italian upstart - so much so they hired a sculptor to build a statue in Leif Erikson's honor on the Commonwealth Avenue mall, only to be quashed by the potentates at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, who didn't buy the theory at all, according to an account by the Needham Historical Society.
Once liberated from Harvard, Horsford did extensive research and dug up quite a bit of land in his pursuit of the idea. Eventually, he declared he had proof that Erikson himself had lived in a house at what is now the intersection of Mt. Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway in Cambridge.
But that was only the start for Horsford. In 1889, he declared that a quiet spot on the Charles at the Waltham/Weston line was the site of Norumbega, the fabled city of Vikings. He built a tower there, which stands to this day.
At the base of the tower is a large plaque:
It starts by declaring that "Norumbega" was the best the natives could do at pronouncing "Norvega," the old name for Norway. It goes on to list all the things Horsford claimed he could see - even if nobody else could - including "Norse canals, dams, walls, pavements, forts, terraced places of assembly" along the river between the tower site and Watertown.
And, the plaque proclaims, Norumbega lasted from its founding in 1000 until "the latest Norse ship returned to Iceland in 1347."
Only problem, as the folks over in Needham note, no garbage: Archaeologists have never found any refuse at all - unlike at a site in Newfoundland, where uncovered garbage piles provided the proof that Vikings had actually landed there - let alone proof of canals, dams, walls, etc.
Today, it can be a little difficult to visit the tower - there are no official parking spaces near it, although there are a couple of grassy patches where one could pull off into. The tower has stairs going to the top inside, although the main passageway is blocked off by a gate, locked with a chain - a chain that is loose enough that the skinnier among us can pull the gate open just enough to squeeze in (such people should bring a flashlight, though - it gets dark in there, or so we hear):