Proposals are being accepted until Oct. 3 for the William A. Thompson, launched in 1937. The riverboat dredged the main channel of the Mississippi between the Twin Cities and St. Louis until 2005.

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A view from the pilothouse of the William A. Thompson. If there are no solid plans for the riverboat, the Army Corps of Engineers would remove historic items and sell the vessel at auction.

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Time running out for unique riverboat

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 23, 2011 - 10:08 PM

A historic riverboat that worked on the upper Mississippi for nearly 70 years needs a retirement home soon and some wonder if it might have a future as a museum or restaurant along the river in Minneapolis.

The riverboat, a dredge, contains a treasure trove of original oak wainscoting and doors, and a pilot house loaded with free-standing brass and copper operating controls. If no one wants to preserve the vessel, it could be scrapped.

Launched in 1937, the William A. Thompson cruised the river between the Twin Cities and St. Louis until late 2005, churning up tons of mud and debris and piping it to shore for disposal. Its job was to keep the main channel deep enough for barges to move grain and other products.

"It's a huge piece of the Mississippi story," said river historian John Anfinson of the National Park Service. "It was the primary vessel to keep the river open for decades, and a number of industries really owe a lot of their profits to its work."

The Army Corps of Engineers owns the Thompson, which has been sitting in harbor at Fountain City, Wis., since it was replaced by a new dredge in 2006.

The Corps needs to stop paying maintenance costs and get it off the books, said navigation program specialist Marc Krumholz.

The yellow and gold dredge, with red accents, is nearly as long as a football field, 48 feet wide and more than 50 feet above the water surface. It contains officers' quarters, a kitchen galley, and about 20 rooms with bunks that housed a crew of about 60.

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota included the Thompson on its 2011 Most Endangered Historic Places list, and called it a "prime example of Minnesota's maritime heritage."

Partners sought

Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland said he has talked with Krumholz and one or two developers about the Thompson.

"I'd love to save it and I'd love to see it in Minneapolis, but I don't have a magic wand," he said. "I don't have a plan for it. I just have a space for it,"

An ideal location would be Bohemian Flats Park, he said, along the river below the Washington Avenue bridge and near the University of Minnesota.

"It would be an instant attraction," Vreeland said.

The Park Board couldn't possibly take on such a project by itself, he said, but some kind of collaboration or partnership could work.

"If I had enough of a nibble of something that could possibly happen to keep this literally and figuratively afloat, I'd certainly try to convince my board to do that," he said.

A similar dredge that worked the Missouri River was restored by the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.

"It's a one-of-a-kind exhibit, and a very popular piece of the museum," said sales and marketing director John Sutter. Scouts, reunions and other groups occasionally rent the dredge and sleep in its bunks for a "rustic overnight experience," he said.

The Corps hopes that the Thompson may have a similar fate, said Krumholz. "We have been looking for a community or historical society, or even business proposals showing partnerships with a community that would like to save it," he said.

The General Services Administration, which is in charge of disposing of the dredge, is seeking proposals until Oct. 3. It could lease the vessel, but most likely would sell it for almost nothing to an interested community with a good proposal, Krumholz said.

A huge fixer-upper

The Thompson has updated kitchen and bathroom fixtures, but otherwise has most of its original 1930s furnishings: oak and glass doors, brass knobs, hinges, latches, door handles, porcelain sinks in officers' quarters, interior oak woodwork covered in the 1960s by paneling, and 4-foot levers, open-tooth gears and clock-face dials in the pilothouse.

The downside, said Krumholz, is that the dredge also needs major repairs that could cost $200,000 for a new paint job and a new second deck walkway for starters, and more if the wrought iron hull needs to be replated.

The costs were too great for the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, which was long interested in the dredge but backed out in late 2008.

Anfinson, of the Park Service, said the Corps has been "very patient" since then in caring for the Thompson while looking for alternatives to scrapping it, but time is running out. If there are no solid proposals, Corps officials said they would remove the historic furnishings before selling the dredge at auction.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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