Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald lives on February 11, 2014

DECADES AGO WHILE TOURING an open iron ore pit on Minnesota’s Iron Range with my parents and perhaps a sibling or two, I met a sailor. Red. His nickname was attributed to his rust-hued hair and beard.

He was a hulk of a young man, crammed into a seat with me on a school bus that bumped down a rugged road into the bowels of the earth.

I honestly do not remember much about Red except that hair and his job laboring on a ship that sailed Lake Superior. We likely talked about the mammoth trucks in the pit. I told him I would be starting college soon and we exchanged addresses.

That fall of 1974, Red sent a few letters, tucked inside official Great Lakes Carriers’ Association envelopes. I can’t recall the content of that correspondence and I soon forgot about Red as I immersed myself in college life.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched more than two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian at the Rice County Historical Society.

Yet, I never really have forgotten him, because of The Edmund Fitzgerald, the iron ore carrier which sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, during a fierce storm. I’ve often wondered whether Red may have been on board that ship. Not likely. But the slight possibility exists.

This past Sunday, I thought about Red for the first time in decades when I attended a presentation on The Edmund Fitzgerald at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault. The event coincides with The Merlin Players’ Valentine’s Day opening of the play, Ten November, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says is is "an honor" to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players' play, Ten November.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says it is “an honor” to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players’ play, Ten November. She is flanked by the other “sisters,” Lisa Quimby, left, and Gail Kaderlik.

Inspired by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the theatrical production is filled with humor and compassion and heartwarming tales, according to performer Lisa Quimby. She was among five musicians—three of them female singers—presenting several songs at Sunday’s museum event. The women represent “The Three Sisters,” a trio of waves, each wave larger than the previous and sometimes cited as a contributing factor to the ship’s sinking.

We were shown a half-hour version of this one-hour documentary for sale at the historical society.

We were shown a shortened version of this PBS documentary available for purchase at the historical society.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on why it sank.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on what caused The Fitz to sink.

Based on information I gleaned Sunday after watching The Edmund Fitzgerald Investigations—a half-hour PBS documentary by Ric Mixter—and a presentation by Minnesotan Jim Christian, who has been diving for 28 years and has explored The Fitz wreckage, I wonder if anyone will ever truly know the precise cause of this tragedy.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke. The ship was built in 1958.

Twenty-nine men aboard The Edmund Fitzgerald lost their lives in the stormy waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. That is a fact.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Winds on that fateful day were described as “hurricane” force with a gale warning issued during the time the 729-foot long by 75-foot wide carrier was en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets. The ship, loaded with 15 percent more than its originally designed maximum carrying capacity, according to Christian, rode low in the water while storm waves rose to 70 feet. Can you imagine?

Around 7:15 p.m. on November 10, The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared. The wreckage was later discovered 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, and has been the focus of many dives and investigations since.

The legend lives on, as does that connection many of us have to The Edmund Fitzgerald, whether through song or theatre or diving or letters written decades ago by a sailor named Red.

Another photo from Jim Christian's presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

Another photo from Jim Christian’s presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE THEORIES offered during Sunday’s presentation as contributing to/cause of The Fitz sinking in Lake Superior in the gales of November 1975. Seas then were termed by a skipper as “the worst (he’d experienced) in 44 years on the lake.”

  • Leaking hatch covers caused by failure to tighten each of the 68 clasps on each of the 21 hatch covers.
  • Mesh screens, rather than watertight walls, separated the three cargo holds.
  • An inability to turn the carrier with three “seas” coming at the ship from three directions.
  • “Beat by the lake” during the fierce storm.
  • The Three Sisters theory of wave building upon wave, overtaking the carrier and causing the cargo to shift forward.
  • Flaws in structural design with weakness in the cargo capacity and too much flex in a ship that was ridden “too hard.”
  • Structural failure of the ship, built in 1958 and the largest carrier on Lake Superior for nearly two decades.
  • Pushing the ship too fast, causing The Fitz and its companion traveler, The Arthur M. Anderson (which made it through the storm), to feel the full fury of the storm.
  • Previous damage to the carrier during grounding and collisions with another ship and with lock walls. The keel had been repaired twice and was termed as “loose again” when The Fitz set sail on November 9.
  • Loaded with too much taconite, causing the ship to ride low in Lake Superior.
  • Negligence.

You can choose to believe what you wish. I’d suggest you do your own research.

This fact I know, though: The legend lives on…

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

FYI: To learn more about The Edmund Fitzgerald, click here to read information on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Performances of Ten November by The Merlin Players are set for 7:30 p.m. February 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22 and for 2 p.m. February 16 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Click here for more information about this play directed by Eric Parrish, a seasoned director and a professor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One man’s dream: Build it and it shall sail, the story of the Hjemkomst November 14, 2012

The Hjemkomst.

I REMEMBER BEING ONE of the skeptics.

Build a ship in the middle of nowhere, haul it to Lake Superior in Duluth and then eventually sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway.

Who thinks that is possible?

A plaque honoring ship builder and captain Robert Asp, located in the Hjemkomst Center, Moorhead, Minnesota. The steps, left, lead visitors to a deck for viewing of the open ship interior.

Robert Asp.

Thirty years ago the Hjemkomst, a ship built by this Moorhead, Minnesota, junior high school counselor, with the help of family and friends, accomplished that 4,700-mile feat, proving the skeptics wrong.

The photo on right, by Tim Hatlestad, shows the Hjemkomst sailing into the harbor of Bergen, Norway.

By then, Asp had died, passing away in December 1980 at the age of 57 from leukemia. But his family pursued his dream, launching the ship on May 11, 1982, for the journey back to the Asp family Motherland on the Hjemkomst, which translates from Norwegian into English as “homecoming.”

Looking up to the mast and sails.

Hearing the Hjemkomst story many years ago is one thing. Seeing Asp’s ship permanently docked in the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead is another. Only by viewing the ship and learning its story in detail can you truly appreciate the determination of a man to fulfill a dream.

A small section of the museum exhibit on the Hjemkomst.

And details you will find in the museum exhibit, these among the highlights I pulled from the wealth of information revealed during a recent visit to the Hjemkomst Center:

  • In the summer of 1971, Bob Asp and his brother Bjarne talked about their Viking heritage over coffee and joked about building a Viking ship to sail to Norway.
  • Bob began searching in the Alvarado area, 18 miles north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and six miles east of Oslo, Minnesota, in the spring of 1972 for oak trees with which to build the Hjemkomst. Eventually 100 oaks would be used in the ship construction.
  • In November 1973, Bob leased a former potato warehouse in Hawley, 22 miles east of Moorhead, in which to construct his replica of the Viking ship Gokstad. Archeologists discovered the Gokstad in 1880 in Gokstad, Norway. Bob based the Hjemkomst on that ship.
  • The purpose of his ship, according to Bob, was “to further the Norwegian image and heritage.”
  • In 1976, Bob was offered $25,000 by a man who wanted to hire a crew to finish building the Hjemkomst for a tall ship parade in New York City. Bob declined the offer.
  • The ship’s keel was laid in 1974 and, after six years of construction, the vessel was christened in 1980 at the “Hawley Shipyard.”
  • In August 1980, the Hjemkomst was lowered into Lake Superior in the Duluth harbor.
  • On May 11, 1982, a 13-member crew began the voyage across Lake Superior with 12 continuing on to Bergen, Norway. The trip would take 72 days, covering 4,700 miles.
  • The ship was eventually returned via freighter to the U.S. and today is permanently at home in the Hjemkomst Center near the banks of the Red River of the North.

As impressed as I was by viewing the actual Hjemkomst and by reading the detailed time-line of its construction, launch and voyage, I was even more impressed by the fortitude of Bob Asp.

A dream come true “button” attached to the side of the Viking ship replica.

He dared to dream.

Here’s a quote from the museum: “Constructed in a sea of grain, a prairie with no ocean in sight, this Viking ship was built board-by-board with determination and sailed to Norway.”

He dared to continue on, even in the face of skeptics and illness (he was diagnosed with leukemia in July 1974).

A plexi board upon which museum visitors can post their dreams.

He dared to believe in himself. Therein lies a legacy of inspiration that teaches all of us the value of holding on to dreams.

A sign of support from the grain elevator in Hawley, where the ship was built.

A quote from Rose Asp, Bob Asp’s wife.

The interior of the Hjemkomst as seen from a second floor viewing deck.

A sign on the ship honors the Asp brothers for their military service.

This dragon head was attached to a canoe, dubbed Hjemkomst Jr., and shown in parades to promote the ship project.

Some of the gear and equipment from the Hjemkomst.

Moorhead, Minnesota, Asp’s home and now the Hjemkomst’s permanent home.

In the center of the Hjemkomst Center, the mast area of the Hjemkomst ship dominates the roofline.

FYI: The Hjemkomst Center is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesdays and from noon – 5 p.m. Sundays. It is closed some holidays. There is free admission from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. every third Tuesday. Admission prices vary. Click here to link to a $1 off admission coupon and for other coupon savings in Fargo/Moorhead.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling