Leif Erikson Park

This postcard of the Leif Erikson resting in Leif Erikson Park was made between 1928 and 1939. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Lake Shore Park becomes Leif Erikson Park

Despite the persistent but unrealized dream of building a breakwater and creating new land to expand Lake Shore Park, two unrelated events in 1926 finally determined the direction of the park’s development: Mayor Sam Snively chose F. Rodney Paine to replace the retiring Henry Cleveland as Duluth’s new park superintendent, and a replica Viking vessel set sail from a small Norwegian village, eventually heading for Duluth.

One of the first projects Paine took on was Lake Shore Park. He soon reported, “That portion of the park lying next to London Road which has been a dumping ground for years was leveled off, top-dressed and seeded…. The area was designed to accommodate large crowds and is to remain practically unobstructed.”

Snively and Paine offered a new variation on the park’s expansion. They proposed a breakwater that would extend five hundred feet into the lake from the back of the Duluth Curling Club and run southwest approximately parallel with the shore for about 1,500 feet to a point opposite Eighth Avenue East. A road would be built on top of the breakwater, and the enclosed area would be filled to create more parkland. As in earlier proposals, boulders from Point of Rocks would be used to build the breakwater. Although city engineers did their best to blast away Point of Rocks, they eventually abandoned that project as too costly, eliminating the rock source for the breakwater and once again putting the expansion project on hold. Outside of relocating the Stone memorial fountain from the junction of Superior Street and London Road to within Lake Shore Park, the fourteen-acre public space remained relatively undeveloped.

Paine’s plan for Lake Shore Park changed, however, when the Leif Erikson sailed into the Duluth harbor in June 1927. Captain Gerhard Folgero and his crew had sailed the vessel—which was outfitted to resemble a Viking ship—from Hemnesberget, Norway, to Boston and on to Duluth. As the ship entered the Duluth harbor, thousands of cheering people lined the canal. After docking, the crew members paraded through the city and were congratulated by the mayor and other local dignitaries. Following the festivities, Congressman William Carss suggested Duluthians raise funds to purchase the ship and move it to Lake Shore Park. West End furniture dealer—and Norwegian immigrant—Bert Enger then stepped forward and offered to purchase the vessel and donate it to the city using funds from his furniture business. Enger’s requirements included that the boat be permanently placed at Lake Shore Park as a monument to Norwegian history in America, and, at Carss’s suggestion, that the park be renamed after the Norse explorer and boat’s namesake.

The city accepted Enger’s gift and temporarily placed the vessel in storage at the Duluth Boat Club until a permanent location could be selected. In his annual report of 1927, F. Rodney Paine reflected, “The presentation to the city of the Lief Ericson [sic] boat necessitated the making of a new general plan of development as one of the requirements accompanying the gift was that it be placed in this park.”

As part of this new plan, park department employees constructed an outdoor amphitheater for band concerts and pageants with a stage designed by Abraham Holstead and William Sullivan. Paine described the building as “attractive and unique in design…of native stone and slate construction. The stage is backed by a wall and flanked with a tower on either side. Under the stage are dressing rooms, store rooms and toilets.” The amphitheater was completed in 1928 for a cost of nearly $22,000. It promptly became a popular spot for community gatherings.

Paine’s staff also began planting trees and large flower beds (mostly annuals) in the area between London Road and the railroad tracks. In 1928 the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented a memorial flag pole to the city for installation at Leif Erikson Park, and the Duluth Peony Society donated fifty named peonies to be planted around the base of the pole.

By September 1929, the Leif Erikson had been moved to Lake Shore Park, which was officially dedicated as Leif Erikson Park on September 8. Unfortunately, because of rain the dedication ceremony had to take place inside the nearby armory. Four hundred people gathered to listen to grand orations by Mayor Sam Snively, Judge Clarence Magney, and other dignitaries from across the state, including Enger himself. Magney gave the key address, praising those of Norse blood and declaring that Duluth needed more parks, especially along the North Shore. Snively’s speech echoed Magney’s. For the next few decades the Leif Erikson was considered Duluth’s second-largest tourist attraction, just behind the Aerial Lift Bridge.

After World War II

A bronze statue of Leif Erikson was added to the park in 1956, donated by members of Duluth’s Norwegian community. In more recent times, for several decades Leif Erikson Park was the home of the Duluth International Folk Festival and the Lake Superior Shakespeare Festival. Since 2006 Trent Edgerton’s Twin Ports Outdoor Movies has presented Movies in the Park, free family-friendly movies projected on a twenty- by forty-foot inflatable screen set up in front of the stage on Friday evenings throughout the summer. And of course Leif Erikson Park has been home to a much-loved Rose Garden for decades.

Nearly two decades before the arrival of the Leif Erikson and F. Rodney Paine, the News Tribune had proposed a grand plan for expanding fourteen-acre Lake Shore Park by filling along the shoreline. The newspaper described the vision in idyllic terms, writing, “It needs little imagination to picture the completed pleasure ground, with its driveways and walks, its playgrounds, lawns, flower beds, shrubbery and ornamental trees, its fountains and lights, its artistically designed pavilions and colonnades. The mind’s eye can easily see the thousands who will throng there on summer evenings to enjoy the breezes, watch the ships come and go, meet their friends and mingle with the crowds.”

Although that plan was not implemented, much of this vision became reality when the development of I-35 through central Duluth resulted in the creation of the Lakewalk, Lake Place Park, and the expansion of the rose garden, providing everyone with the opportunity to enjoy the Lake Superior shoreline. The Leif Erikson vessel suffered from neglect and vandalism over the years, and in 2013 it was temporarily put into storage. As we write this in 2016, the borders of the park are about to change once again, as a small triangle of land at the southwest intersection of London Road and Superior Street is slated to become the home of the Leif Erikson replica vessel and an enclosure to protect it from the elements and vandalism. Appropriately enough, that triangle is part of the original parcel of land that John Millen 110 years earlier had suggested become a city park—an idea that evolved into today’s Leif Erikson Park.

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