Peter Nissen: Chicago’s Forgotten Hero




You might reasonably ask: who are these people, and why are they standing around a giant raisin?

Actually, it’s the Foolkiller 3. Not to be confused with the Foolkiller Submarine – that’s a topic for another day!

Peder Nissen, hero.

Peter Nissen of Francisco Street was an accountant by day, but, like many accountants (I assume), he dreamed of a more exciting life. He built a miniature steam boat known as the Foolkiller in which he shot the Niagara rapids. The boat actually featured an open design so that he could wave to the crowds – if he hadn’t thought to install shoulder straps at the last second, he surely would have died.

In 1904, after shooting the rapids in The Foolkiller and its successor, The Foolkiller 2 , Nissen decided that he just hadn’t cheated death enough and decided to invent a new ship, The Foolkiller 3 (pictured above), in which he would discover the North Pole. The craft was really little more than a big canvass balloon – the main inner workings were simply a hammock-type seat hung from the axel; Nissen would steer by moving the basket back and forth across the axel. The idea was that the thing would roll over both land and sea.

After testing it on land and running into a pole, people started to think Nissen was a little bit nuts. One cold winter night, he shocked the city by setting out in the strange vessel to cross Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana. A tug boat followed, begging him to turn back, but Nissen carried on, undaunted.

Exactly what happened to poor Peter Nissen is a bit of a question mark – there are conflicting reports. All we know for sure is that the wrecked Foolkiller 3 was found on the shore, not far from Nissen’s body. He didn’t survive the trip, but he DID make it across. And we here at Mysterious Chicago admire his spirit!