The Saga of Seattle's Leif Erikson Statue

Originally published in Norwegian American Weekly

Vikings were used to long voyages and their sagas spanned generations. So what’s 19 years in the saga of Seattle’s statue of Leif Erikson and the three replicas it has spawned? It was 1994 when a university scholar from Trondheim, Professor Rolf Grankvist, was visiting Seattle and having dinner at the former Windjammer, near the base of Seattle’s 1962 statue. He casually tossed off an idea: “Seattle ought to give a statue of Leif Erikson to Trondheim to help us celebrate our thousand-year history as a Viking city.” Just as casually, Seattle native Kristine Leander, who had studied at the university in Trondheim and was fond of the city, said, “Sure, we’ll do that.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Kristine formed a group that quickly came up with the idea of asking for donations in the name of immigrants whose names would be inscribed on plaques near the base. They decided it was expedient to use Seattle’s statue as a model, and create a 10-foot version of it, rather than seeking a new sculptor or a new design. Three short but busy years later, a large group from across America were at Trondheim on July 23, 1997, for the unveiling. The original sculptor, the late Professor August Werner, had also formed the Norwegian Ladies Chorus of Seattle, and the chorus was there to sing at the ceremony.

Professor Grankvist was also there to remind the group that the Icelandic Sagas mentioned three sites where Icelandic-born Leif visited or lived: Trondheim, where he sojourned one winter; Brattahlid, Greenland, where his family settled after leaving Iceland; and Vinland, on the shores of Newfoundland, Canada. The thousand-year anniversary of Leif’s journey from Brattahlid to Vinland was three short years away, so the group reconstituted itself as Leif Erikson International Foundation, or LEIF for short, and set to work. They provided the largest chunk of funding for a second replica for Brattahlid, with the governments of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Greenland contributing as well. To raise LEIF’s part of the funds, more immigrant names were added to the statue in Trondheim.

The Greenland statue was unveiled in 2000. The installers sent from Seattle said that they’d never seen a more perfect setting than on the hillside high above Erik the Red’s farm. Again, the Norwegian Ladies Chorus of Seattle welcomed the statue with their songs.

One site remained without a statue—Vinland—but the LEIF group decided that particular dream was a bit out of reach. They turned their attention instead to Seattle’s statue at Shilshole Bay Marina, badly in need of a new base and a new setting. With the help of artist Jay Haavik, they conceived a plaza surrounded with runic-like stones, arranged in the form of an ancient Viking ship, and bearing, once again, the names of immigrants. Leifur, as Port of Seattle workers called the statue, was refurbished and the first set of names, numbering more than 800, were unveiled on Oct. 7, 2007. Additional names were installed on July 18, 2010, bringing the total to 1,767, but public demand for names continued. Plans were made for a final stone at the plaza, and in the wake of the Seattle success, dreams of a third and last replica for Vinland began taking shape.

Visits were made to L’Anse aux Meadows, and relationships were formed. The last Leif replica was unveiled on July 28, 2013, and the Chorus was on hand again to welcome him. And again, the opportunity to place names near the base was integral to the design and the funding for the statue. The group requested a tall piece of basalt from Iceland to hold the plaques, and Seattle’s Icelandic Club funded it.

Is the saga complete? Not quite yet, but nearly so. LEIF still has 88 spaces for immigrant names at the Seattle site, and is also soliciting names of individuals and clubs, along with donations, to be installed on two more Icelandic basalt stones at Vinland. The group anticipates completing both projects in summer 2014. Twenty years later, that conversation down at the Windjammer has a nice ring to it.

For more information about adding your name or your family members’ names to a monument, e-mail or call 206-778-1081.

By Kristine Leander, Ph.D. Kristine is granddaughter of Swedish immigrants to Skagit County. Her Ph.D. research was conducted at the University of Trondheim, Norway. She is currently the president of the Leif Erikson International Foundation and the Executive Director of the Swedish Club in Seattle.