Saving the Julia Belle Swain

Photo: Lorna Benson | MPR News | File Built in the early ’70s, the Julia Belle Swain was a fixture on the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers until its last voyage (under its own power, anyway) in 2008, when it became a victim of the economic meltdown in America.

Locals may recall its appearance at the Grand Excursion in St. Paul in 2004, which recreated an event 150 years earlier.

The Swain was one of the hits of the St. Paul event, but when the economy went sour, the boat went aground.

Its financially strapped owners were allowed to dock it in La Crosse, and there it sat for five years, not getting any healthier

If not for a group of dedicated enthusiasts, one of the last steam-powered stern wheelers left, would be kindling by now.

River boats die hard in these parts. The effort to renovate the Swain ran aground when the dry dock company went under.

And the cost to get the boat back on the river, projected at $1 million, has now passed $2 million, the La Crosse Tribune reports today. It will not return to the river this year, the paper says.

“It was obvious that we had a substantial amount of work to do and little time to get it done for the 2017 season,” JBS Foundation President John Desmond said in an email Wednesday in answer to a phone message. “We made the decision to continue the restoration but at a more restrained pace.”

This is what she looked like at this time last year.

Photo: Julia Belle Swain Foundation Facebook page.

But, judging by the photos accompanying today’s story, the work has been impressive, indeed.

Costs ballooned at every bend in the river, such as instances in which workers trying to restore the walls found that coats of paint and putty over the years had covered irreparable flaws and weakened structure. They needed replacement instead of repairing, and the foundation opted for aluminum instead of wood.

The foundation has opted for top-notch materials throughout, a dedication Desmond has explained by saying, “We’re fixing it for the next 50 years.”

The Belle now has a new boiler, generator, electricity, insulation, support poles, air conditioning, new restrooms and filigree and made of metal rather than the wood that had rotted before it, the captain pointed out.

Dykman and Dillon Connor, who also has done yeoman work on the boat in both Dubuque and La Crosse and is expected to be the Belle’s engineer, were able to dismantle and rebuild the original engines, which are more than 100 years old.

The paddle wheel, which was decrepit and had rotting planks as it gathered cobwebs and hosted insects and critters on shore, will have new metal spokes, awaiting assembly near the boat. Custom Fab and Machine in La Crosse crafted them in half-moon sections that will be joined and fastened to the axle, then be outfitted with new wood paddles.

Even the ship’s calliope is being rebuilt.

When will history return to the river? Next year, a benefactor says.

The foundation hopes to keep it in La Crosse and use it for events on the river.