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The landbound journey of Duluth's Viking longship

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Lake freighter sails past Leif Erikson ship
The Viking ship replica Leif Erikson rests, partly restored, on a stand in Leif Erikson Park, Duluth. In the background is a 1,000 foot taconite freighter arriving in Duluth on Lake Superior.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher
Leif Erikson Viking Ship
The Viking ship replica Leif Erikson sailed from Norway to Duluth in 1926 and 1927. Duluth businessmen purchased the ship, then donated it to the city, and put it on display. The ship is mostly restored, but needs a building to protect it from the elements and vandals. It's now berthed on land in Duluth's Leif Erikson park. The ship is still missing a mast, a dragon figure-head and tail. It's been a frequent target of vandals, who have carved initials into the ship and set its protective plastic cover on fire.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Like the park, the ship is called the Leif Erickson. It's on public display, on heavy wooden stands, in a bit of a ravine along Duluth's lakewalk. It's almost fully restored, but not yet assembled. The mast is missing. Its newly carved dragon head and tail have never been installed.

Without ornamentation or details, the Viking ship looks more like a 42-foot row boat. Black roofing rubber covers the top, and a ratty blue tarp flaps from the aft.

This is not what Neill Atkins had in mind when he helped launch the Viking ship's restoration in the 1980s. Now the old boat is an all too easy target.

Neill Atkins
Neill Atkins is a member of the Leif Erikson restoration project, which has worked for about 20 years to restore a 1920s vintage Viking boat replica.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"You know, it makes us real unhappy," Atkins says. "On the other side there's some areas where a few years ago - a couple of years ago - they went and carved initials in on the keel, and a little swastika there, and somebody's initials. I don't know if it was Hermann Goering's initials or whoever it was."

The Viking ship is a half-sized replica of the kind of ship that may have first landed Europeans in North America. It arrived here in 1927, two years after launching in Norway. It's been in restoration 10 times as long as the journey. Neill Atkins wonders if it ever will be done. The ship's repainted keel is again exposed to the weather, and to the public. It's even been set on fire.

We're looking for some ownership responsibility on behalf of the city

"When people start setting fire to stuff it gets us to the point where we are at right now, wanting to yank the ship out of here, secure it, and then wait for the city to finally come to its end of the bargain," Atkins says.

According to Atkins, Duluth officials promised a roof over the ship as far back as 1928. That's when the city accepted the ship as a gift from a pair of local businessmen. But the depression came and the roof never did.

A roofed cover was designed again in the 1980s, as Atkins and volunteers poured more than $100,000 into a rebuild. But money's been tight, city administration turned over, and the ship still waits.

Herb Bergson
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The point is, you've got a priceless artifact here, that has become basically an antique," says Atkins. "And we're looking for some ownership responsibility on behalf of the city. Because the city owns it. We don't."

Now, Atkins is hoping for some movement. He's been talking to current Mayor Herb Bergson. Bergson admits the city's neglect borders on disgrace.

"It would just be tragic if that beautiful piece of Duluth heritage were in any way damaged or destroyed permanently for lack of a good shelter," Bergson says. "We're going to find a way next year, come heck or high water. The people that worked so hard to shelter it deserve to have our support, and we're going to to that."

Leif Erikson statue
Leif Erikson statue in Duluth's Leif Erikson park.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

In the process, the ship could be given a high profile perch. Discussions have been underway to put the ship outside the Great Lakes Aquarium, at least while a permanent shelter is built in Leif Erikson Park. It could be a nice fit, according to aquarium board director Pat Schoff.

"I think it would be very good for us to have the viking ship there," Schoff says. "It certainly has a lot of local interest and I'd say regional and statewide interest."

But there would be many details to work out first, like how to keep it secure at no cost to the cash-strapped aquarium. Atkins says the ship would be safer and more visible by the aquarium, but he says eventually, the ship needs to be back home in the park.

"I know in the community there's a big sentimental heart out there to Leif Erickson park and the ship remaining here," says Atkins. "And we really need to find a way to keep it here, secure."

There's plenty of time to consider the possibilities. The next city budget won't be in place for eight months.