The Origin of Duluth’s Leif Erikson Park
By Kyle Chisholm
By Kyle Chisholm – City Tour Program Coordinator
The origin of Duluth’s Leif Erikson Park goes back a ways… a long ways.
Perched on the North Shore of Lake Superior in the heart of Duluth, Leif Erikson Park was once known to local Duluthians as Lakeshore Park. In the 1920’s the park’s name would be changed to honor the Icelandic explorer who is said to have sailed across the Atlantic to discover the New World in approximately 1,001 AD (almost 500 years prior to famous explorer Christopher Columbus sailing the “ocean blue”).
Decades before the park’s re-naming ceremony occurred, however, a farmer in Alexandria, MN made a startling discovery that set the wheels in motion for Mr. Erikson’s monument in Duluth.
As the story goes, Swedish farmer Olof Ohman was working his fields in Alexandria on November 8th, 1898 – clearing the land of trees and stumps – when he stumbled across a strange stone containing a Nordic inscription – The Kensington Runestone. Inscribed with the date 1362, the stone purportedly recounts the voyage of a group of Viking explorers who traveled east from a land referred to as Vinland (thought to be located in Newfoundland). The inscription has been translated as saying,
“Eight Swedes and twenty-two Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgen Maria) save [us] from evil. We have ten men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Related: check out this week’s Duluth History Bus Tour!
It’s been debated what “sea” the stone refers to. Perhaps it refers to Lake Superior and, over time, the stone traveled further inland. As for the location of Vinland, it is now thought to describe a location (or multiple locations) in Newfoundland, Canada where Viking settlements were discovered in 1960 at L’Anse aux Meadows.
Unfortunately for farmer Ohman, the stone itself has been deemed a forgery and discredited by numerous scholars. In fact, references on Wikipedia suggest that the famous stone was sold for a mere $10 and is now, apparently, on display at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota. So while the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone has been debunked, it is interesting that the stone tablet references a land long rumored, but not officially validated until 60 years after the stone’s discovery.
That said, the heroic voyages made by Viking explores are well documented and it’s not to believe that if the Vikings came across the Atlantic, they’d also explore the Great Lakes. They were true masters of water. If you look at the Viking incursions in Europe around the same time, Viking explorers and traders moved down the Volga River, traveling deep into the heart of Russia, the Black Sea, and even laid siege to the city of Byzantium (aka Constantinople, aka Istanbul today). That’s thousands of miles from Scandinavia, showing that a journey to this part of North America was clearly within their wheelhouse.
What is undeniable is that the trip from Scandinavia to Duluth was possible using the technology of the Vikings. In fact, during the Spring of 1926 four men from Norway set out to prove that Leif Erikson’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and then, presumably, to Minnesota was achievable. Though not everyone agreed that it was.
Up the the challenge, Captain Gerheard Folgero set out to prove the the Saga of Leif Erikson correct. According to the recounting of his story on The Leif Erikson Viking Ship Restoration Project website, Captain Folgero had been reading and writing about the Vikings since he was a young boy. He was particularly fascinated by Leif Erikson and his voyage to North America in an open boat. Needless to say, Folgero had been dreaming about the expedition for sometime, and had this to say about it:
“Many people said this could not be true, so I made up my mind that it could be done, as soon as I could get money for a ship.”
So what did Captain Folgero do? Well, he commissioned a Viking longboat be built and in 1926, Folgero and his crew of three set sail from Hemnesberget, Norway in the replica Viking longboat named the Leif Erikson. Their goal was to recreate the historic voyage of Leif Erikson and prove, once and for all, that the stories could be true. This was no easy task and according to Zenith City Online:
“[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 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.”
Shortly thereafter, Norwegian immigrant and furniture baron Bert Enger along with his business partner Emil Olsen decided to purchase the ship and donate it to the city. There were a few stipulations though. The Viking ship had to be maintained and displayed in Lakeshore Park and the park was renamed to Leif Erikson Park (after the ship and explorer) and has remained so to this day.
After many years on display the Leif Erikson fell into disrepair only to be covered by a tarp and surrounded by chicken wire. Ancestors of Emil Olsen took up the cause of saving the ship and succeeded in raising the funds to restore it.
The vessel has received painstaking repairs for the past few years and it was announced earlier this year that the Leif Erikson will receive a prominent future display at the intersection of London Road, Superior Street, and 10th Avenue East. You can read more about the future display in The Duluth News Tribune.