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Moorhead's most famous Viking ship could have been destined for failure, but instead it became an icon

40 years ago this summer, Robert Asp's Hjemkomst ship journeyed to Norway and into the history books.

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The Hjemkomst Viking Ship display at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.
David Samson / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — No doubt, Robert “Bob” Asp had his critics.

What is he doing out there?

Why is he wasting his time?

That’ll never make it.

“That” was a huge wooden Viking ship that Asp started building in the early 1970s with the eventual dream of sailing it to Norway.

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Now some 50 years after construction began, and 40 years after the overseas voyage ended, it’s very clear Asp was not wasting his time. He was making history.

The dream begins

While recovering from a broken leg in 1971, Asp, a Moorhead Public Schools counselor, began serious research on how to build an authentic Viking ship — a lifelong dream of his to reconnect with his ancestral home. When he had recovered in 1972, he began building the huge wooden ship in an old potato warehouse.

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Robert Asp works on his Viking ship in Hawley, circa mid-1970s.
WDAY documentary / State Historical Society of North Dakota archives

“The plan was for him to build this Viking ship and (his brother) Bjarne’s family and our family would quietly sail it to Norway ourselves,” Asp’s wife Rose told WDAY-TV in a 1982 documentary.

The ship would be named Hjemkomst — Norwegian for “homecoming.”

Even after Asp was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, the dream didn’t die. He just got a little help from friends and family who helped him finish building the ship in six years.

Each week, Tracy's "Back Then" revisits a part of local history and reminds us of the people, places and things that have made this area home.

The first taste of water

Fortunately, Asp was able to see the ship, built on the landlocked prairie, get its first taste of the sea.

In July 1980, the ship was towed from Hawley to Duluth, where the 13-person crew, which included four of Asp’s children, began training for its overseas voyage to Norway. Asp took his last trip on his dream ship in September, before dying on Dec. 27. His family and friends were committed to finishing the journey for him.

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Bob Asp's wife, Rose, said when Bob was dying of cancer, the family told him to take his dream as far as he could and when he's gone, then continue his journey. Four of the Asp children, Tom, Roger, Doug and Debbie, were part of the crew to sail the Hjemkomst to Norway.
WDAY documentary / State Historical Society of North Dakota

But they were met with skeptics. Ed Drill, a Lake Superior mariner, said he feared for their safety and didn’t think they’d even make it past the Great Lakes.

“I don’t think they have the experience with Lake Superior that some of us have seen, and the boats that have gone down,” he said.

But the crew wasn’t deterred.

“People might say we’re crazy, but we’re not,” said Bjorn Holtet. “We’re adventurous.”

The roughest leg

It turns out the old mariner had a point. The ship’s voyage through the Great Lakes, particularly the first seven days on Superior, proved to be what crew members later called “the most difficult challenge of the entire voyage” — constant cold, wet conditions sailing directly into the wind.

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A crew member bails water during a tropical storm five days outside New York on the way to Norway. The crew also faced difficult conditions sailing on the Great Lakes.
WDAY documentary / State Historical Society of North Dakota archives

One month later, 1,500 miles from Duluth, the Hjemkomst and its crew reached New York City for the start of its transatlantic voyage. The crew admitted they were nervous, particularly after one crew member decided to end his voyage there out of responsibility to his family.

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The Hjemkomst sails into New York harbor after a journey from Minnesota's Lake Superior through the Great Lakes. The next leg of the journey would take the 12-person crew to Norway.
WDAY documentary / State Historical Society of North Dakota archives

“There was something in my stomach leaving New York. The ocean is big and could be cruel to us,” said Holtet.

“When the ship left New York City it was almost like saying goodbye to Bob all over again,” said Rose.

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Five days out of New York, far away from the cheering crowds and happy sendoff, the Hjemkomst and its already weather-worn crew would face another challenge — a tropical storm.

Fifty-five mph winds caused serious damage, including a 14-foot crack along the keel. The amateur sailors, many from the Minnesota prairie where they were more used to shoveling snow during a blizzard, were forced to make repairs and bail water in the wind, rain and rolling sea.

The homecoming

While the crew sailed, nervous family members hoped for the best. Gert Solum, whose son Jeff was aboard the ship, prayed, “I have a lot of faith in the skipper upstairs,” she said.

It must have worked as the ship pulled into Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, 34 days after leaving New York City, with the crew weary, but safe and sound. In mid-July 1982, large crowds greeted the ship and the crew wherever they went in the country. The crew even met the king of Norway. Eventually, the Hjemkomst reached its final destination of Oslo on Aug. 9, 1982.

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The Hjemkomst sails into Bergen, Norway, 34 days after leaving New York City.
WDAY documentary / State Historical Society of North Dakota archives

The ship was eventually transported back to the United States aboard a freight ship and brought by truck back home to Minnesota, where the Asp family donated it to the city of Moorhead, where it has come to symbolize the town. It’s been incorporated into the Moorhead city logo. The Hjemkomst Center, where the ship is housed, has become a popular multi-use facility. One of Moorhead’s elementary schools was renamed Robert Asp Elementary.

It might be hard to believe that it all started with Bob toiling away in an old warehouse, well into the night, on a project some thought was just a pipe dream destined for failure.

But Bob is getting the last laugh.

Rose told WDAY, “His dream never died. It’s right here.”

Asp on ship
Robert Asp and his Viking ship the Hjemkomst in Hawley, Minn., in 1979. He died one year later, after having the chance to see his ship sail the Great Lakes. A 12- person crew eventually sailed the ship to Norway in 1982. The Hjemkomst Center, where the ship is now located, is planning commemorative events for the end of July 2022 to mark the 40th anniversary.
Forum file photo / NDSU Archives

The Dream Lives On

In commemoration of the Hjemkomst voyage’s 40th anniversary in 2022, the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County is undertaking a major redesign of the Hjemkomst Ship Gallery.

Starting at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 23, a grand opening event will celebrate the “new look” of the ship gallery and some of the original crew members of the Hjemkomst, along with their families, who will be present.

This event is free and open to the public. Visit the HCSCC website for more information and a schedule of events.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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