On Wednesday, June 23, it will be 94 years to the date that a 42-foot Viking replica ship sailed into Duluth, completing a voyage that began in Bergen, Norway, and roughly traced the route Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson took to arrive in North America in 997 AD. The ship then continued through the St. Lawrence Seaway to reach Duluth.
Two prominent Duluth businessmen of the day, Bert Enger and his posthumous partner, Emil Olson, acquired and donated the wooden vessel a month later, donating it to the city with the understanding that it would be properly housed, maintained and placed on permanent public display.
Things didn't really work out that way, however.
Left exposed to the elements, the ship, also named Leif Erikson, fell into disrepair. A group of local donors and volunteers undertook a painstaking restoration, investing more than $200,000 in private funds to return the vessel to its former glory, said Neill Atkins, co-chair of the Leif Erikson Restoration Project. The ship has remained in storage out of public view since 2013, when it was first hauled to a warehouse on the property of the former Lafarge Cement Terminal. More recently, it has been stored in a portion of the former Georgia Pacific Superwood plant.
"Our job was not to build a building. It was to restore the ship, which we've done," Atkins said.
Atkins noted that the city never lived up to its obligations.
"Other than displaying it in the park, there was never much maintenance, and it was never covered. So, that went on for 80-some years," he said. "We had hoped the city would come forward with funding to build a permanent structure to secure it and house it. But that never happened. This is a 90-year-old story of the ship kind of being pushed down the pike."
On Monday, the Duluth City Council unanimously voted to transfer ownership of the ship to a local nonprofit called Save our Ship Inc., the initiators of the Leif Erikson Restoration Project.
Mayor Emily Larson issued a statement Monday afternoon expressing her support for the proposed donation of the ship, saying: “On behalf of the city of Duluth, I am grateful that we have a local organization who is willing and able to take ownership of the 42-foot replica Viking ship gifted to us in 1927.
"While the city may not have been the most appropriate permanent caretaker for this gift, we are fortunate that Save Our Ship, Inc. has stepped up to the task.
"I want to extend my deepest gratitude to Bert Enger and Emil Olson for their generosity 94 years ago, and to Neill Atkins and Save Our Ship, Inc. for potentially taking the helm of the ship’s next chapter.”
In a letter requesting the ship be donated, to Save Our Ship, Atkins wrote: "Our understanding is the city of Duluth is unable, at this time, to undertake displaying the ship in a protective building, as was promised in the original gifting of the ship to the city of Duluth in July 1927."
Atkins went on to write: "We are excited to have two entities interested in housing and displaying the Viking ship and are currently reviewing the separate proposals. Neither would require a financial commitment from the city of Duluth."
In a phone interview with the News Tribune on Monday afternoon, Atkins acknowledged that one of the options for placing the Leif Erikson on public display would involve hauling it to the Knife River Heritage & Cultural Center, but this would also involve the considerable cost of constructing a proper long-term shelter for the replica ship.
"We hate to think about moving it out of the city," Atkins said. But nevertheless, those promising conversations with Knife River preservationists continue.
Another option being explored would make use of existing space in Canal Park, but Atkins said it would be premature to discuss that prospect in detail at this time.
This story was updated at 9:50 a.m. June 22 to state that the Leif Erikson ship was donated to the city of Duluth by Bert Enger and his posthumous partner, Emil Olson. The story was originally posted at 6 a.m. June 22. The News Tribune regrets the error.