Ninety-four years ago Wednesday, a Norwegian boat captain named Gerhard Folgero steered a small sailing vessel under the Aerial Lift Bridge into the Duluth harbor, marking the end of a remarkable journey that replicated the voyage of legendary Viking explorer Leif Erikson to North America.
Folgero built a 42-foot-long wooden ship — with a carved dragon's head on the bow, shields lining the sides and a square, white-and-red striped sail — recruited a crew of three men and successfully navigated the North Atlantic, dodging icebergs off the coast of Greenland, before sailing through the Great Lakes to Minnesota.
Nearly a century later, that ship is still in Duluth, and after more than 30 years of fundraising and painstaking restoration, it now has new owners, and possibly soon, a new home.
The Duluth City Council voted unanimously Monday to donate the replica Viking vessel to the local nonprofit group Save our Ship, which was founded in 1985 to restore the ship and build a permanent display structure to protect it from the weather and allow for public viewing.
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“Back in 1985, the ship was ready to fall apart into dust,” said Neill Atkins, who co-founded the group.
“We were able to authentically restore it. It took us a number of years because we raised money as we went along to get it done.”
Atkins estimates the group has invested close to $200,000 into the ship’s restoration. “And that doesn't count all the volunteer sweat equity that's gone into it,” he said, which totals thousands of hours.
It was never supposed to be the responsibility of a group of volunteers to maintain the ship.
In 1927, two Duluth businessmen bought the boat for $5,000, and donated it to the city, where it was displayed along the shore of Lake Superior, in a park renamed after Erikson.
Under the terms of the agreement, the ship was supposed to be “permanently kept in such suitable enclosure or structure as will protect her from the ravage of the elements,” and “be open to the inspection of the general public.”
But, after decades of exposure to the elements, the wooden ship began to rot. Atkins’ group encased it in shrink wrap to protect it, and it sat outside at the park for more than a decade, before the city allowed them to move it into a warehouse for storage in 2013.
“The city over the years has not been able to do what originally was promised,” Atkins said.
Save our Ship has raised $90,000 so far toward a permanent home for the ship. The plan had been to encase it in a glass structure at Leif Erikson Park, its longtime former home.
But with a price tag north of $400,000, and no financial commitment from the city, Atkins said that dream is now out of reach.
But Atkins said the group has recently been approached by several entities offering to partner with them. One would involve moving the ship up the North Shore to the town of Knife River, an option Atkins said the group isn’t seriously considering at the moment.
But Atkins said two Duluth businesses have also approached the group about hosting the ship, including one in the Canal Park area with an existing structure that could house the vessel, near where the ship was docked when it first arrived in Duluth in 1927.
Atkins said he hopes to be able to announce a final destination by the end of the summer.
“The sails are blowing full,” he said.