A Viking-inspired replica ship soon could return to public view in Duluth.
For now, the 42-foot vessel remains stowed away behind closed doors at the former Lafarge cement terminal, but by the end of this summer, preservationists plan to put the ship on permanent display at the western end of Leif Erikson Park.
Neill Atkins, a member of the Save Our Ship restoration committee, said he expects the concrete slab for an exhibit building to be poured this spring.
"We're still fundraising, and a number of things remain in motion," he said, explaining that he continues to talk with local contractors and suppliers.
Members of the Duluth Building Trades Council already have volunteered their labor to assist, Atkins said.
Save Our Ship has about $100,000 in hand to tackle what would normally be about a $300,000 project, Atkins said.
Yet Atkins said he remains confident this will be the year that a glass-walled structure will be built to securely house the ship after years of neglect.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he remembers visiting the ship at Leif Erikson Park as a child and feeling a sense of connection with his Norwegian heritage.
The vessel set sail in 1926 from Bergen, Norway, traveling to Labrador and then to Boston. From there, it transited the St. Lawrence Seaway System clear to the western shores of Lake Superior in 1927. Bert Enger and Emil Olson, a pair of Duluth businessmen who made their fortune in the furniture business, bought the ship for $5,000 and promptly donated it to the city for public display.
But the ship eventually fell into disrepair, and even after an ambitious renovation, it remained unsheltered in an obscure portion of the park.
"For far too many years it was covered with blue plastic and was off in a corner. It was almost a symbol of a failed intention," said Ness, reflecting.
The mayor considers the community effort to put the ship back on proper display nothing short of inspiring.
"To see people coalesce around a new vision and something that will make the ship more visible, protect it from the elements and once again return it as an iconic landmark for our city is certainly exciting," he said.
Following several false starts, Atkins said the project finally seems to have the broad support it needs.
"We've had timid help from the city in the past, but the Ness administration has been a real catalyst," he said.
Last week, the Duluth Planning Commission unanimously approved a variance allowing for the construction of a glass display structure for the ship on a triangular piece of property at the intersection of London Road and Superior Street.
"This is the closest we have yet come to getting a project completed," Atkins said. "We've been working hand in hand with city administration, and I think the mayor wants to get this done as much as we do."
Ness confirmed that he hopes to see the Viking ship back on permanent display before he leaves office at year's end. If that wish comes true, Ness said it will be a tribute to the hard work of others.
"First and foremost, the success of this project is a credit to the efforts of an extremely dedicated group of activists who have seen this project through the decades. There have been any number of points where this group could have given up the dream and turned their attention to other projects, but the sheer determination and doggedness of this group has brought us to this point," he said.
Efforts to restore the deteriorating ship began in the 1980s, and portions of the vessel had to be reconstructed. Atkins said the value of time and money donated to the restoration equate to an investment of "hundreds of thousands of dollars." Nevertheless, he considers the sacrifices well worthwhile.
"This ship is one of a kind," Atkins said. "It's a real treasure. It's a priceless artifact that the city owns."
Atkins said his only regret is that some of the people who helped save the ship won't be around to see it back safely in the public eye.
"Too many of the people who helped us reach this point have already gone to Valhalla," he said.