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Leif Erikson ship to leave Duluth for new home in Knife River

After years of languishing behind the scenes in Duluth, the replica Viking wooden vessel will voyage north to be placed on public display at the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center.

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Capt. Gerhard Folgero sailed the Leif Erikson Viking ship from Norway to the U.S. in 1926. It arrived in Duluth the following year.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Duluth Northeast Minnesota Historical Center
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KNIFE RIVER — The Leif Erikson replica Viking ship has been moved from Duluth to a new home at the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center, 180 Marina Road.

Built in Korgen, Norway, the ship arrived in Duluth on June 23, 1927, after setting sail from Bergen and retracing a route similar to that charted by the first Viking ship to arrive in North America probably around 997 A.D.

The Leif Erikson was purchased and donated to the city of Duluth on behalf of Bert Enger and his late business partner, Emil Olson, with the understanding that it would be properly maintained and placed on permanent public display. But the ship fell into disrepair until 1985, when a group of local volunteers organized under the "SOS" name — short for "Save Our Ship" — undertook its restoration at a cost of more than $200,000.

Lacking a sheltered display space that would afford the ship protection from the elements and vandalism, however, the Leif Erikson has primarily remained in private storage since 2013.

Viking ship at Leif Erikson Park
Workers use ropes to guide the Viking ship onto a flatbed parked on the bridge connecting Leif Erikson Park to Superior Street in July 2013. From there, it was driven to a warehouse at the former LaFarge Cement terminal for repairs.
File / Duluth News Tribune

In June 2021, the Duluth City Council unanimously voted to officially transfer ownership of the wooden ship to SOS , with the organization pledging to find a suitable permanent home for the replica vessel.

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In November 2021, the replica ship was taken out of storage and transported to Knife River, where it was placed on display for the community's annual Julebyen Scandinavian Christmas Festival.

The Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center was already laying plans to build a shelter to house the Crusader II, a local fishing tug christened in 1939 by Crown Prince Olav of Norway. Center representatives met with the SOS board on June 22, asking it to sign a letter of intent to permanently relocate the Leif Erikson to Knife River, where it aims to also put that vessel on exhibit. The SOS board unanimously agreed to do so.

Randy Ellestad, a member of both the SOS and Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center boards, expects it will cost about $150,000 to erect a permanent shelter for the Viking replica ship and said fundraising is already underway for a timber-frame structure, in hopes that it will be completed within a year's time.

"We do have moneys in our coffer. So, we can definitely start. But to hit a home run, we'll still need to do some fundraising," Ellestad said.

He said now that the group has a clear direction, he believes those fundraising efforts will gain new momentum. "We've finally got a good compass course."

Ellestad said it's unfortunate that the city of Duluth could not have retained and properly displayed the wooden replica ship. But he said volunteer SOS members rose to the challenge when needed.

"Things just slipped away, and it got to the point where if we wouldn't have stepped in, it would have probably landed in the landfill by now, because it was getting to be in that state of decay," Ellestad said.

"Almost two generations of people haven't seen that boat. So, it will be nice for them to enjoy it, and then we're going to try to honor the people in the past who believed in the cause and the volunteers who put in hundreds of hours," he said.

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Even before the sheltered exhibit space in Knife River is completed, the replica ship will be placed on temporary public display at the community center Aug. 4-7 to coincide with the Festival of Sail in Two Harbors.

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This story was updated at 12:03 p.m. Aug. 2 with additional information from Randy Ellestad. It was originally posted at 6:54 p.m. Aug. 1.

This story originally misstated when the Leif Erickon ship was put into storage. It was updated at 7:09 p.m. Aug. 1. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Related Topics: DULUTHTOURISMHISTORY
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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