Local View: Viking ship charting new coordinates after many storms
Although the Leif Erikson Viking Ship remains closed to public viewing at present, three brief public mentions of the ship were reported this month. Who knows, maybe the ghosts of a few ancient Norse seafarers felt sorry for the beleaguered vessel, straining for air inside its shrink-wrap at the old Superwood site on Railroad Street. Were these citings for real?
The first occurred during a press conference at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. In the July 6 News Tribune article, activist Henry Banks asserted that "outrage" would have swelled if Duluth's iconic Viking ship had suffered a similar drift into blight as the environs of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. Perhaps Banks would experience some solace when I write that he stands corrected on that assertion.
Prior to the Great Depression, the city of Duluth, in taking ownership of the Viking ship, promised to the donors a shelter. None appeared. Over the years, the city neglected to weatherize or maintain the grounds near the ship. When the city did work on the ship at one time, it selected a type of paint that prompted spaces to widen between the ship's planks. More recently, the city offered a conditional $60,000 toward the structure of the ship — but only when full funding for the project was obtained. A few years ago, city administration and an architect started to offer some in-house support to the Viking ship. Since then, the city architect position has been eliminated.
I think it's fair to affirm that this historic pattern on the part of the city of Duluth falls short of outrage.
Two further public mentions of the Viking ship occurred on July 11.
A letter to the editor in the News Tribune asked a well-focused question: Where did all the donated money go? This deserves an answer. Reserved funds now amount to about $70,000 and have been held by Save Our Ship, a nonprofit founded for the sole purpose of restoring the ship. Funds are used to support some mailings and pay nominal fees and costs each quarter. Members of Save Our Ship who possess a professional level of ship-restoration knowledge have donated significantly more than $100,000 in time, labor, and materials to restore the ship, especially the hull.
One board member commented that some years ago the Viking ship looked like "a leftover remnant from the Head of the Lakes Fair." The ship still needs some back-cabin work, the replacement of some rigging, and a covering over the decks and cabin tops. Thankfully, however, it's no longer in the kind of shape that prompted some in Duluth years ago to encourage a ritual burning as a way of ending the ship's travails.
Save Our Ship has received in-kind donations over the years as well. Local companies such as Northland Constructors, Viant Crane, Krech Ojard & Associates, and Johnson Wilson Builders have contributed much in terms of volunteer labor, material, and advice. Jeff Foster Trucking offered its former Superwood site for storage after the building of the new Pier B hotel forced the ship out of its old storage space.
Others beyond Save Our Ship realize the value of this historic vessel and have made efforts to cover costs involved in its care.
Another letter to the editor on July 11 alluded to the reality that funding sources don't just appear out of thin air like some of those old Norse ghosts. That letter concluded that the Viking ship "is still waiting for much-needed repairs."
While the ship itself is in good condition now, current total estimates for a quality completion of the project, including moving the ship under a new shelter in Leif Erikson Park, are just under $500,000. A renewed volunteer effort toward obtaining grants for this is now underway. If successful, visibility for the Viking ship will increase.
Save Our Ship board members are hopeful that faithfulness to their vision, despite many obstacles over the years, will bring about a celebratory conclusion to the stormy — and ghostly — saga of Duluth's Viking ship within the next three to five years. That would be in time for the bicentennial of the arrival of the first officially recognized ship of Norwegian immigrants to America in 1825.
Thomas Vaughn of Duluth is a volunteer grant writer for the grassroots nonprofit group Save Our Ship. He grew up near Leif Erikson Park and hopes to see Duluth’s Viking ship returned there.