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Our View: Norse funeral avoided in Knife River

The historic Leif Erikson Viking ship, long neglected in Duluth, has finally found a forever home on the North Shore.

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Photo courtesy of Paul von Goertz of the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center / The historic Leif Erikson Viking ship, long neglected in Duluth, is getting a new home in Knife River. This week its shrink-wrap was removed by employees of Knife River Marina — Max Kolodziejcak, top, and Rick Hill, on the ground — for display in conjunction with Festival of Sail in Two Harbors.
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Finding a home for the Leif Erikson Viking ship, a place that’s both out of the elements and in the public eye, was taking so long, decades even, that the Duluth volunteers working on it started thinking that “maybe we’d be looking down from Valhalla at the ship someday and not be able to be a part of the final deal,” as Neill Atkins, chair of the grassroots group Save Our Ship, or SOS, said in an exclusive interview this week with the News Tribune Opinion page.

Atkins and others need to hang on only a little longer to see their years of fundraising, lobbying, and other hard work pay off — to see their long-dreamed-of permanent and protected home realized for the nearly century-old ship, the first of its kind to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean following the same route as Norse explorer Leif Erikson, from Iceland to what is now America. The Viking ship arrived though the Duluth ship canal, historically and to cheering throngs, on June 23, 1927.

This week, the ship has been moved out of storage in Duluth, where it has been out of sight but at least protected since 2013, to its new home for public display and preservation — its forever home, at long last — at the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center.

“Finally, we’re going to get this darn thing completed,” Atkins said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of volunteers — my mother and others from the Sons of Norway and others who helped diligently on this — who are gone. They’d be pleased.”

To anyone disappointed that the Leif Erikson ship will no longer be in Duluth: come on, Duluth had decades of chances to make that happen and didn’t.

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Sure, plans were made — or often just discussed — to respectfully house, maintain, and display the historic boat. But they kept being scrapped or allowed to fade from public attention and public funding, pushed aside by whatever hot new priority emerged.

The vessel spent years at Leif Erikson Park after the city accepted responsibility for it not long after its late-1920s arrival here. Duluth businessmen Bert Enger (for whom Enger Tower and Enger Park were named) and Emil Olson had acquired it and donated it to the city. The city vowed to take care of it as a public treasure. It’s safe to say the city has fallen far short of making good on that commitment.

For the longest time, the boat was left unprotected, allowing it to be battered and tattered, year after unforgiving year, by Duluth’s famously severe weather. It also kept getting moved, from place to place, like a mismatched chair that can't find its place in any room of the house. At one point, it was surrounded by ugly chain-link fencing and barbed wire.

Atkins and others, to their credit, never gave up on it. And, last summer, when the city did what it probably should have done years earlier and transferred ownership of the craft to SOS, there was newfound “optimism … that it finally will be treated with the respect and reverence it deserves and as the community treasure that it is,” as a News Tribune editorial opined. The Save Our Ship group is “actually interested in its preservation and display. … (and) has already been laboring for years — since 1985, to be precise.”

The Viking ship’s new home is appropriately near Lake Superior, easily accessible by visitors off Scenic 61, and in a city founded by Norwegian immigrants that still boasts a large Norwegian-American population. The Knife River Julebyen, a Scandinavian-themed Christmas festival, draws about 5,000 visitors every December to celebrate Scandinavian holiday traditions.

“Knife River has retained its boat-building and -restoring skills, passed through generations,” Paul von Goertz, board president of the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center, told the News Tribune Opinion page this week. If the public is to learn about how North America was discovered by Europeans, it should be in a historical and educational setting. The teaching tool is a replica of what we believe is the first ship to land here. It is in the best interests of the public that stewardship of the ship be in public hands, in this case SOS, a nonprofit, and the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center, also a nonprofit. The land upon which the ship rests should also be publicly owned.”

Its shrink-wrap protection removed, the Leif Erikson Viking ship is on display all this weekend in Knife River in conjunction with Festival of Sail in nearby Two Harbors. By fall, Atkins said, a concrete foundation for the building expected to be housing the ship by next year will be poured and ready. The ship will then be shrink-wrapped again for the winter by volunteers from the Knife River Marina, a donation valued at $800 to $1,000, Atkins said.

“It has been so long. It has been over 30 years,” Atkins said. But success in finding a permanent, protected home for a treasured piece of our past seems to finally be at hand. Skol to SOS, Knife River, the Knife River Heritage and Cultural Center, Sons of Norway, and anyone and everyone else who has worked so hard for so many years to make it happen.

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