It's dark, cramped and numbingly cold in the aft of this old vessel -- a beached whaleback steamer known as the S.S. Meteor. Paint fumes are dizzying, space heaters and fans deafening. And the massive gears of the steering mechanism are thick and slick with 105 years of grease, flecked with a century of dust, cobwebs and paint chips.

Wedged back here, wearing goggles and gas masks, a retired history professor from Duluth, a car mechanic from Lino Lakes and a 12-year-old kid from Wisconsin are scraping and painting this filthy steerage room. They're part of a 52-person crew of volunteers from across the Midwest. They've come back for the seventh straight year to spend a knee-wrenching, back-twisting weekend restoring this quirky, cigar-shaped freighter.

"Folks around here are just boat nerds," says Jerry Sandvick, 70, emerging from the dankness for some air. "It's dirty, noisy -- and wonderful."

The Meteor is the world's last whaleback steamer -- not counting the shipwrecked ruins that litter the bottom of Lake Superior. Starting in the late 1880s, a 44-boat armada of the strange-looking freighters and barges with pig-nosed snouts hauled Great Lakes iron ore, grain, sand, gravel, fuel and even ferried cars from Detroit.

They were the slightly flawed, instantly outdated and devil-to-unload brainchild of Scottish-born Capt. Alexander McDougall, a Duluth engineer, entrepreneur and curmudgeon. (He railed against construction of Duluth's iconic Lift Bridge, among other things.)

"There's a common assumption that there was something wrong with whalebacks and that their design was faulty, but this boat was active and productive from 1896 into the 1960s," says Sara Blanck.

She's director of the Meteor Museum in Superior, a work-in-progress hodgepodge of relics housed in the belly of the whaleback itself. The 366-foot, 2,500-ton boat was hauled out of Lake Superior in the 1970s and beached on Barkers Island, where it's open to the public for summer tours starting this weekend.

"It's a world treasure that we want to preserve for the next 200 or 300 years to give the old girl her due," says Allison Pearce, 65, a onetime seafaring tugboat chief engineer and the Meteor's preeminent storyteller. "If you don't know where you've been, you have no idea where you're going, and this is the last surviving novel design anywhere left in the world."

Hands-on history

That's all well and good. But why do all these volunteers give up a spring weekend year after year to suck toxic fumes and pour sweat into a hulking old boat that even its most ardent advocates admit needs a lot of work? The answer is part historical fascination, part deep-rooted camaraderie.

"Where else can you get the run of a unique, antique ship for a weekend?" says Dale Koziol, 60, an Ecolab engineer from Maplewood. "We're the crew and it's just cool to come out here and be part of preserving something so historic."

Easy for him to say. Unlike the grease-caked guys down in the steerage hole, Koziol is about three stories high above them in the pilothouse, refurbishing windowsills in the perch where the captain and his helmsmen once navigated the Great Lakes.

Decades ago, Koziol says, someone glued "cruddy, cheap floor tile to the windowsills and they were peeling, cracked and nasty looking."

He carefully scrapes off the tile and paints the sills. Not far to the aft, other volunteers are painting the crew's cabins, sprucing up the boiler room, the cook's galley and the triple-expansion stream engine.

Outside, a tireless Craig David and his torch welds steel plates over rust holes. His wife, Kari, remakes the crew quarters' beds with fresh sheets, while their sixth-grader, Gunnar, sneaks into hard-to-reach places with a paintbrush.

"I just wish he was this gung-ho back home," Kari says with a chuckle. The family dog, Ozzy, sleeps in their camper after the 220-mile drive from Marshfield, Wis.

"History wasn't much fun back in high school, but when you grow up, you realize just how important something like this is," says Randy Flacksbarth, 54, a hearing aid specialist from St. Paul. "We're a wide variety of people from all networks of life. The work isn't always fun, but look around. Everyone's pitching in and they all have smiles on their faces."

Especially when his wife, Renee, brings out her homemade cinnamon rolls.

"It's so easy to get hooked when you're preserving something that no one else in the world has, and that was the backbone in building this nation," she says. "The camaraderie and the lure of Great Lakes shipwrecks brings us back."

Saved from the scrapyard

This submarine-looking vessel, and others like it, got nicknamed whalebacks because they rode low in the water with rounded hulls. The Meteor was originally christened the Frank Rockefeller in 1896, renamed the South Park in 1927 and only became known as the S.S. Meteor in 1942, when she was refitted as a tanker during a World War II boat shortage.

Many of the volunteers are scuba divers who have explored the Meteor's sunken whaleback cousin, the Thomas Wilson, which sank after a collision about a mile off the Duluth piers in 1902.

"She zigged when she should have zagged and went down like a bloody rock," Pearce explains. "She didn't have a great deal of buoyancy when she was loaded so a hull breach was a real problem, and several of her crewmen were lost."

He says the Meteor was nearly sent to the scrapyard several times, but World War II actually kept her viable and saw her refitted as a tanker to haul aviation fuel and petrochemicals.

"Anything at all that floated, you fixed it, patched it and made it work," he says.

On Saturday night, the crew gathers for a big dinner at the historic old Superior Fire Hall. Phil Kerber, the president of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society and Meteor fix-up foreman, gently roasts the David family and flips through a slide show of seven years of steady progress the preservationists have made against the ravages of time.

By Sunday afternoon, the guys in the steerage room have slathered on fresh coats of paint. Bob Olson, the auto mechanic, has hauled out five wet-vac bags full of gunk. And despite the chilly rain, Sandvick, the retired history professor, is wearing a big grin.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I wouldn't want to do this kind of work the other 363 days a year. But for two days, you can't beat it."

Staff writer Curt Brown joined the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society while researching his nonfiction book about a wicked 1905 gale that smacked Duluth, "So Terrible a Storm," which Voyageur Press recently released in paperback.