The Saga of Seattle’s Leif Erikson Statue
By Kristine Leander
“The old saying is true…It is easier to be wise
after the event.” Eirik the Red, Saga of Eirik the Red.
Was Eirik the Red simply telling us that
hindsight is 20-20? Or did he mean something deeper—that it’s easier
to know the truth of an event afterward? If so, was he right? Nearly 45
years after the creation of the Leif Erikson statue at Seattle’s
Shilshole Marina, determining the truth of the project calls for detective
work and an understanding of human nature.
But first, why a statue of this particular
Viking in Seattle? Icelandic-born Leif Erikson, who according to the sagas
was the first European in America, has particular resonance for
Scandinavian Americans. Even though his father, Erik the Red, was born in
Norway, Leif is not particularly well known in Scandinavia. Across
America, however, Leif is a symbol of Nordic immigration, a trailblazer
and hero. His voyage to America in 1000 put him ahead of Christopher
Columbus, and during the height of immigration in the late 19th century,
gave clout to Scandinavian Americans. At a time when European immigrants
were rubbing shoulders and bumping elbows on the streets of America,
Scandinavians could claim that they landed even before the Italian
Christopher Columbus or the English-speaking Pilgrims. It is significant
that the first statue of the famous Nordic adventurer was erected in 1887
in Boston, known not for its Scandinavian immigration, but instead for
Italian and Irish immigrant populations and nearby Plymouth Rock, where
the Pilgrims landed.
Seattle’s statue of Leif Erikson was a
gift from the Leif Erikson League for the 1962 World’s Fair. Trygve “Ted”
Nakkerud—one of the longest-living members of the group responsible for
the statue—was the force behind the statue’s fundraising and creation,
and he loved telling its history. If the sculptor August Werner was its
father, Trygve was its mother. I met him in 1994, when he was 92, and more
than once heard the following tale.
He reported that the Leif Erikson League—by
his description a Norwegian social club accustomed to celebrating October
9 as Leif Erikson Day, drinking heartily on the 17th of May, marching in
parades, and sailing on Lake Washington—made a motion in 1956 to raise
funds for a statue. They held a contest at the old Norway Hall, now the
Mountaineers building, to select a sculptor to design a statue of Leif
Erikson as a gift to the city of Seattle. Trygve, a farmhand, logger,
fisherman, and union leader, would lead the Leif Erikson League in raising
the funds. Even though he did not submit a design, Professor August Werner—a
multitalented singer, artist, sculptor, instructor at the University of
Washington, and director of the Norwegian Male Chorus—was allowed to
become the sculptor simply due to his sway within the community. According
to Trygve, “No one says no to August Werner.”
August and Trygve enlisted the aid of
another member of the Norwegian-American community, architect John Engan.
Guided by a Norwegian history book, the three men first created a 4-foot
model in August’s dining room—furniture removed except for a piano. (A
widower, August didn’t mind the project displacing his dining room
table.) They worked until two or three o’clock in the morning for days.
August entertained them with songs, “fresh cooked coffee” and
Shortly after they completed it, according
to Trygve’s telling, August invited a Seattle Times reporter for
a viewing, but removed the supports supplied by John, the architect, who
was concerned about the stability of the freshly made plaster model. Early
the next morning, August called the other two with the news, “Come
quickly, my boy Leif is in a thousand pieces.” Interpreting the phrase
“my boy Leif” as a slight of his own efforts, John refused. But the
next day Trygve and August repaired the model with steel rods, plaster of
Paris and toothpicks to stabilize the nose.
4-foot model for the Leif Erikson statue. Photo taken in
August Werner's home.
The Leif Erikson League had planned to send
the model to Oslo to have the full-size statue cast. Trygve had even
traveled there to make arrangements. But August sent it instead to a
foundry in Berkeley, California “so that he could take a peek at it now
and again.” Through a fellow faculty member at the University of
Washington, August had contacted a young Italian artisan in Berkeley,
Franco Vianello, and sent him instructions to cast a 16-foot version of
the statue. But instead of changing the proportions to accommodate the
perspective of looking up at a large statue on a high pedestal, Franco
simply “pointed up” the 4-foot model in exact four-to-one proportion,
with the help of a Greek sculptor, Spero Anargyros.
With the statue nearly finished and money
running low, Franco telephoned Trygve, who rented a truck and sped to
Berkeley. There, he found August’s UW colleague, a woman, sunbathing at
the foot of the statue clad only in a pair of white tennis shoes, while
the young artisan, in need of more bronze to finish the project, combed
the beaches for propellers that might have washed up from ships. Trygve
opened his wallet to help complete the statue.
The hip section was only a half inch thick,
so they fortified it by pumping in floating cement. Trygve couldn’t
afford a wooden shipping crate, so the statue was hoisted onto a truckload
of cast-off tires and sawdust for the trip to Seattle. Just prior to the
crane lifting the statue, Trygve allowed the Italian to scramble to the
top of the truck to select several tires that he judged to be better than
those on his vehicle.
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