Monday, December 3, 2012

Harbor History: Leif Erickson Replica Viking Boat

By: Tony Dierkins, Zenith City Online

Duluth’s Leif Erickson replica Viking ship was built in Norway in 1926 for Captain Gerhard Folgero. According to historian Pat Labadie—whose father and grandfather built the boat—the Leif Erikson was a 42-foot wooden “femboring” craft “patterned after the traditional Norwegian working craft that served coastal shippers and fisherfolk for centuries [and was] used by medieval Norse adventurers and explorers.” So the Leif Erikson is not a precise replica of a Viking craft but a representation of the same class and style of boat likely used by Leif Erikson himself.

Captain Folgero and his crew outfitted their vessel with carved head and tail pieces and wooden shields bearing Viking devices and sailed the dressed-up fishing boat from Bergen, Norway, to the coast of Labrador and beyond, supposedly following much of Leif Erikson’s original 1002 route.

It wasn’t easy. They faced hurricane-like winds, icebergs, and weeks of fog. But they made it to Labrador and on to Boston, covering 6,700 miles in 50 days. From Boston they sailed on to Duluth to take part in a national convention of Norwegian emigrants. By the time they arrived here they had covered roughly 10,000 miles. That they accomplished this in a 42-foot boat outfitted with only oars and a square sail is nothing short of remarkable.

That’s when congressman William Carss suggested Duluthians raise funds to purchase the ship and move it to Lakeshore Park, then rename the park in the boat’s honor. But it was Bert Enger and Emil Olson, West End furniture dealers and Norwegian immigrants, who purchased the boat and gave it to Duluth for all to enjoy, and indeed Lakeshore Park was rechristened Leif Erikson Park. The boat was once considered Duluth’s second-largest tourist attraction, just behind the Aerial Lift Bridge.

In 1984 Neill Atkins and Will Borg, Emil Olson’s grandson, established Save Our Ship (S.O.S.) to renovate, preserve, and protect the vessel. They have struggled to raise fund to properly protect the boat, displaying a mixed record of stewardship. S.O.S.’s ironic initial idea was to not save the boat at all but to scrap it (the News-Tribune suggested she be burned in Lake Superior, like a Viking funeral). S.O.S. would then build a longboat-style warship to replace it, even though the boat was modeled after Viking merchant vessels built before the Norsemen became marauders.

Due to budget concerns, the replacement plan itself was scrapped and a renovation plan put into place. It took years to raise the funds, but a major overhaul was accomplished in 1996. The boat was then freed from a chicken-wire enclosure that had protected it for years and then moored in a more elegant berth within the park. Fear of vandals, however, has left it covered in shrink wrap waiting for a proper home.

S.O.S. has struggled since to raise money for an appropriate shelter. The will has always been there, but the funds have not always materialized. In the late 1990s Save Our Ship considered moving it to the Great Lakes Aquarium. The idea couldn’t have sat well with Borg, as he was once quoted as saying, “Leif Erikson Park without a ship is like Canal park without a lift bridge.”

In 2012 another group of developers proposed moving the boat to a retail development to be constructed at the “Lafarge” site, just west of Bayfront Park. That project has not materialized.

From Zenith City Press’s forthcoming “Pearls on a String: History of Duluth’s Parks.”