Leif Erikson statue is unveiled at Shilshole Marina in Seattle on June 17, 1962.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 2/05/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11187

On June 17, 1962, following six years of planning, negotiations with city officials, and a not-always-smooth design process, a monumental statue of Leif Erikson (ca. 970-ca. 1020) is presented to the people of Seattle at the Port of Seattle's Shilshole Marina in the Ballard neighborhood. The memorial to the Viking explorer was proposed and championed by Trygve "Ted" Nakkerud (1903-1995) and his Leif Erikson League, which raised money for the effort and worked diligently for several years to convince the City of Seattle to accept the statue as a gift, a task accomplished only when the Port agreed to locate the memorial at its marina. August Werner (1893-1980), better known as a singer and University of Washington music professor, designed the statue. He does double duty at the unveiling, directing the Norwegian Male Chorus's performance at the celebration, which also features a Viking flotilla, costumed Norsemen, and dignitaries from the state and several Scandinavian countries.

Earnest Discussions

Leif Erikson Day celebrations had been held in Washington on October 9 every year since 1941, but leaders within the local Scandinavian community sought more public recognition of the fabled Viking explorer. An earnest discussion about the possibility of a Leif Erikson statue was initiated in 1956 by Trygve Nakkerud, who saw the need for both funding and an formal group to support the effort to completion. With official formation of the Leif Erikson League on April 29, 1957, members from 17 different Scandinavian groups in Seattle were brought together with the shared goal of creating a memorial to the explorer.

Chairman Thorbjorn Grønning (1888-1969) and other members of the league's "Committee of Placement" submitted a petition on September 5, 1958, for placement of a Leif Erikson statue, which the group planned to donate to the city, in the new Civic Center (site of the upcoming 1962 World's Fair and later Seattle Center). A second petition, to place the statue in a city park, worked its way through the Seattle City Council and its Parks and Public Grounds Committee, followed by the Municipal Art Commission, in early 1959.

Entrusted to Werner

By then, the league "ha[d] entrusted the design for the statue to Prof. August Werner, longtime member of the University of Washington faculty and a prominent member of the Scandinavian community" (Guzzo, "Site Remains Problem ..."). Werner had learned of a competition being held by the league to obtain designs for a Leif Erikson statue and, according to Nakkerud, who described him as "rather an aggressive person," came to the group and was adamant about being the sculptor charged with creating the statue (Eie interview). Werner convinced the league he was up to the task, and an uneasy alliance between the two men was formed, aided at first by another league member, John Engan. However, personality clashes plagued the project from the onset. When a model of the statue constructed in Werner's dining room broke apart owing to lack of proper internal supports, Engan declined to help rebuild it after his calls for more supports had gone unheeded by Werner.

Over the next three years, the league had several meetings with members of the Municipal Art Commission to discuss the offer of the statue as a new public artwork for the city. Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011) weighed in on the debate that followed and expressed a desire to see "beautification projects that would promote fountains as well as sculpture" ("Minutes of the Municipal Art Commission"). Subsequent meetings with the commission yielded slow but measureable progress, as first sketches of the statue and later a four-foot model in plaster were prepared by Werner and made available for review. For the next several years, Nakkerud continued his efforts as league president to secure more than $40,000 from the local community to pay for the casting of the statue and other costs.

Location Settled

The art commission's heated debate as to the artistic merits of Werner's model -- which showed Erikson as a scout, clad in Viking helmet and holding an ax -- was resolved at a meeting on November 17, 1960, when Chairman Robert Schulman (1917-2008) communicated an offer by the Port of Seattle to place the bronze-cast 16-foot version of the statue at either the Salmon Bay Terminal (Fishermen's Terminal) or the Shilshole Marina. With Nakkerud and the league agreeing to the proposed Shilshole location, eleven members of the commission (including a number who found the model uninspiring or unexciting) voted unanimously to approve the statue with a recommendation to the Port Commission that the artwork be placed at the Shilshole moorage. The following day, The Seattle Times detailed the commission's deliberations over the criteria for acceptable public art and compared the figure of Erikson to that of the "Flying Dutchman" (Guzzo, "After Stormy Voyage ...").

For his part, Werner had studied Norse maritime history and Viking boat design, and held the Viking explorer in high esteem. His personal notes reflect both admiration for Erikson and thinly veiled contempt for those who might question the validity of the explorer's discovery of "Vinland" and other achievements:

"These are the people who like to criticize the Norsemen who crossed the trackless oceans long before their southern colleagues dared lose sight of land. Then you have the silly argument that they could not very well cross the big Atlantic Ocean in an open boat. How did they get to Iceland then or Greenland, by subway? It certainly was no pleasure trip" ("For Leif Erikson Tale").

Werner's disagreements with the Leif Erikson League continued. He disregarded plans for enlarging the model to 16 feet in height and casting it in bronze through the league's contacts in New York and Oslo, Norway. Instead Werner sent the plaster model to two artisan associates in Berkeley, California, to complete the project using the "lost wax" method of sculpture casting. After several delays (including a lack of bronze for the final casting process) the statue was completed, and departed from Berkeley for Seattle on May 10, 1962.

Leif Unveiled

Meanwhile, on February 23, 1962, the Port of Seattle's Capital Improvements Committee had sent a final recommendation to the Port's General Manager, Howard Burke, that the league's placement of the statue at the Shilshole Marina should be approved. The recommendation was passed unanimously at a Port Commission meeting four days later, on February 27, 1962.

The unveiling of the Erikson statue at Shilshole on June 17, 1962 (Norway Day), was accompanied by the Norwegian Male Chorus playing "The Star Spangled Banner," led by Chorus Director August Werner, who served in a dual capacity that day. Dignitaries including Washington Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011), Consul of Iceland Karl Frederick (1883-1966), Consul of Norway Christen Stang (1896-1967), and Ambassador of Norway to the United States Paul Koht (1913-2002) attended the dedication ceremony, which also featured a Viking boat flotilla and Norsemen dressed in costume.

While Werner and Nakkerud were guests of honor at the unveiling ceremony, their names were both omitted from the base of the statue. Those oversights were corrected with the addition of Nakkerud's name in 1977 and Werner's name being added during a refurbishing of the memorial site in 2002. Since 2007, the names of more than 2,300 additional Scandinavian immigrants have been inscribed on the statue's base and 14 "runestones" that surround the memorial. Three 10-foot copies of Werner's original Leif Erikson statue design were later cast in bronze and were installed in Trondheim, Norway (in 1997); Brattahlid, Greenland (2000); and L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland (2013).


Sources: "Minutes of the Municipal Art Commission," February 11, 1960, MAC Minutes Folder, Box 1, Series 1652-01, Municipal Art Commission Minutes, 1955-1969, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Louis R. Guzzo, "Site Remains Problem in Erikson-Statue Plan," The Seattle Times, March 13, 1959, p. 49; Guzzo, "After Stormy Voyage, Ericson League Sights Land at Last!" Ibid., November 18, 1960, p. 17; August Werner, "For Leif Erikson Tale," undated manuscript, Folder Leif Erikson Notes-82.120.467y, Box 13, August Werner Papers, Accession No. 82.120, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, Washington; Leif Eie interview with Trygve Nakkerud, 1986, VHS video tape, Catalog No. 1997.176.106, Drawer 2, Cabinet 1, Leif Eie Oral History Collection, Accession No. 1997.176, Nordic Heritage Museum; Kristine Leander, "The Saga of Seattle's Leif Erikson Statue," Leif Erikson International Foundation website accessed February 2, 2016 (http://www.leiferikson.org/Seattle.htm and http://www.leiferikson.org/Saga_of_the_Statue.htm); "Turning Over a New Leif," Leif Erikson International Foundation website accessed February 2, 2016 (http://www.leiferikson.org/Shilshole.htm).

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