Leif Erikson Park takes its name from the Leif Erikson, a replica Norse vessel that traveled from Norway to Duluth under the guidance of Captain Gerhard Folgero (1886 to 1950). According to Leif Erikson researcher Randy Ellestad, Folgero grew up in Sandnessjøen, Norway, and like other Norwegian children, listened to the Icelandic sagas. He was particularly taken by Leif Erikson’s tale: how, around the year AD 1000, the Norse sailor traveled from his birthplace in Greenland to his ancestral home of Norway, converted to Christianity, then got lost on his way back to Greenland and ended up in what he called Vinland on the eastern coast of North America. To many, including Folgero, that meant that Leif Erikson had “discovered” America nearly five centuries before Columbus set sail from Spain.
Cynics said the journey would have been impossible for the type of vessel Erikson likely used—an open boat with one sail. Even as a boy, Ellestad writes, Folgero became determined “to build and sail an open boat over the course taken by Leif Erikson, his hero, thus proving to the skeptics that it could be done and that the sagas spoke the truth.” At age fourteen Folgero went to sea; by 1910 the twenty-four-year-old seaman was a full captain. Fifteen years later he had enough experience—and money—to make his dream come true.
Folgero hired a shipbuilder in the remote Norwegian village of Korgen. Johan Peterson—along with his son Knute, grandson Christian Overlier, and others—constructed the vessel in a barn on the family farm using traditional techniques. Folgero claimed the boat was “a true type of the vessel that Leif Erikson used in the discovery of America in 997.” Historian Pat Labadie agrees—almost. According to Labadie, the Leif Erikson is a forty-two-foot wooden “fembøring” 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.” Labadie called the ship a “1920s small craft with some influence of the Viking tradition” but noted that it “can’t be construed as a replica of a historic vessel.” So the Leif Erikson is not a precise replica of a Viking craft, but rather a representation of the same class and style of boat likely used by Leif Erikson himself.
When the boat was complete it was adorned to look like a Viking ship. Norwegian architect Gerhard Lilletvedt designed the boat as well as the head and tail pieces that resemble a dragon, which were hand carved by Adreas Nilsskog. Round wooden “shields” bearing Viking devices were fastened along the boat’s sides. The vessel was then loaded onto wooden supports and pulled over the snow by horses to the town of Elsfjord, where it was put into a fjord and then towed to Hemnesberget to be fitted with a sail before heading to Bergen for the official start of the journey.
On May 22, 1926, Folgero and his crew—John Johnson, Thomas Stavanes (often misidentified as Osvald Gabrielson, who replaced Stavenes after the vessel reached the U.S.), Kristian Anderson, and the captain’s dog—set sail from Bergen to retrace Erikson’s voyage from Norway to Iceland to the coast of Labrador and on to “Vinland.” At the time many mistakenly believed that Vinland was actually modern Massachusetts, so Boston became Folgero’s ultimate destination. (Erikson’s Vinland was more likely the Canadian province of Newfoundland.)
It wasn’t easy. The crew faced hurricane-like winds, icebergs, and weeks of fog. But they made it to Labrador and on to Boston, covering 6,700 miles in fifty days. There Folgero met with disappointment: a deal to sell the replica vessel to a community on the East Coast fell through, and he was counting on the money to finance his next adventure. So he accepted an offer to sail to Philadelphia to represent Norway at the Sesquicentennial Exposition and then another offer from H. H. Borgen, president of Duluth’s Nordlandslaget Society, to come to the Zenith City to participate in the organization’s state convention. By the time Folgero and his crew arrived in Duluth on June 23, 1927, they had covered roughly 10,000 miles.
Five miles from the Duluth harbor the U.S. Naval reserve training ship USS Paducah met the Leif Erikson with an orchestra on board playing the Norwegian anthem. Closer to port, more vessels joined the convoy and thousands of people lined the Duluth Ship Canal in welcome and “roared” as Folgero and his crew navigated the channel. After landing, the crew paraded through the city to the courthouse, where Mayor Snively and Congressman William Carss praised the Norsemen’s courage and enterprise. Folgero reported in his diary, “We had made it to our destination. It was an event for us, our country, and Duluth.” During their stay, the Norsemen were the toast of Duluth.
The next day the Duluth News Tribune announced Carss’s suggestion that Duluthians raise funds to purchase the ship and move it to Lake Shore Park, then rename the park Erikson Park. The city council considered contributing $1,200 toward purchase of the boat if the remainder could be raised by public subscription. Instead, Bert Enger offered to donate the entire amount, $5,000, from the coffers of Enger & Olson, the West End furniture dealership he operated with the recently deceased Emil Olson. The city council agreed to the terms of Enger’s offer: that Lake Shore Park be officially renamed Leif Erikson Park and that the boat be permanently installed at the park, protected from the elements, and open to public inspection.
The boat was docked at the Duluth Boat Club until the park department could prepare a home for it. In the meantime, the Leif Erikson participated in a flotilla of vessels celebrating the opening of the Duluth-Superior Arrowhead Bridge. After receiving the payment for his boat, Folgero asked to borrow the vessel for one last voyage: the Leif Erikson and her crew had been invited to Chicago to participate in the dedication of Leif Ericcson Drive. They left in August and returned in October. Folgero then went back to Norway and began work on another replica Viking vessel named for Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundson. In 1929 to 1930 Folgero used this boat to retrace Columbus’s journey from Spain to the New World.
The Leif Erikson sat in storage at the Duluth Boat Club for two years, waiting for a permanent home at Lake Shore Park. Finally, in the fall of 1929, the boat was moved to the park, and on September 8 dignitaries gathered at the Duluth Armory for a ceremony to officially change the name to Leif Erikson Park. An evening banquet at the Spalding Hotel honored Bert Enger for donating the boat to the City of Duluth.
During its first few decades in the park, the Leif Erikson was a favorite tourist attraction, second only to Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge in popularity. But neglect and vandalism took their toll, and to protect the vessel it was placed within a cage of chain-link fencing and, later, a modest wood-and-chicken-wire enclosure. In 1984 the boat was in such poor condition that the News Tribune suggested that it should be given a proper Viking funeral: towed out onto Lake Superior and set aflame. In 1984 Neill Atkins and Will Borg (a grandson of Emil and Marie Olson) established Save Our Ship (S.O.S.) to renovate, preserve, and protect the vessel. Over the years the group struggled to find the funds to properly protect the boat. It took over a decade to raise money for a major renovation project, completed in 1996. The boat was then moored in a more elegant berth within the park. Because of vandals, it was covered in shrink wrap as it continued to wait for a proper home.
In the late 1990s, S.O.S. considered moving the Leif Erikson 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 a group of developers suggested moving the boat to a proposed retail development west of Bayfront Park. Those plans changed, but the boat was moved to the site for safe storage and has been there since June 2013. In March 2015, S.O.S. announced plans to break ground on a shelter to be built within the park near the intersection of Superior Street and London Road, but the project was delayed. The Leif Erikson is expected to be back within its namesake park and in its new home some time in 2017. Fittingly, the planned new home for the Leif Erikson will be erected on a triangular piece of land at the southwest corner of Superior Street and London Road, essentially the same plot of land John Millen suggested in 1905 become Duluth’s first park along Lake Superior’s shore.