- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - The Julia Belle Swain is in its pupal stage, encased in a shrink-wrap chrysalis during its metamorphosis into a resurrected butterfly to ply the Mississippi River.

“We’ll still be the Julia Belle Swain, but we’ll be new and improved,” Capt. Eric Dykman promised during a tour of the extensive work in progress on the 45-year-old, steam-powered sternwheeler moored on the Black River in La Crosse.

“We’re keeping the same image of the boat - we’re just making it better,” Dykman said of the lengthy, $2 million-plus process to restore the Belle’s glory after rescuing it from several years in mothballs on French Island.

“We’re fixing it for the next 50 years,” said John Desmond of La Crosse, head of the nonprofit Julia Belle Swain Foundation that bought the craft for $250,000 in 2013.

“This thing is going to be beautiful” when it glides across the water again as a tour boat, dinner cruise vessel, special events venue and floating classroom, Desmond said.

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Echoing both assessments is Barry Blomquist of Onalaska, the unofficial project manager who confesses that he was a hard sell on the idea, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1P1bIXJ ) reported. Now, he predicts, the Julia Belle Swain will be so solid and eye-catching, with ornate amenities within the two enclosed upper decks, that it will be a draw for tourists and events.

“I wasn’t passionate at the beginning,” said Blomquist, the founder of Mid-City Steel Fabricating and de facto boat-building guru of the Coulee Region. “I thought, ‘Do they know what they’re getting into?

“Then I wondered whether I knew what I was getting into, but the more involved I got, the more passionate I became,” said Blomquist, who started Mid-City as a one-man welding shop in 1972 and sold it in 2007, when it had 75 to 80 employees. “It’s a project you have to wrap yourself around.”

Others involved in the project hail Blomquist as the brains behind the brawn and boldness of the venture, a testament to the fact that his company “built about every boat in town and was a subcontractor to SkipperLiner,” Blomquist said without a hint of braggadocio.

Noting that he spends four hours or more on site nearly every weekday, Blomquist laughed as he said, “I wish I was getting paid.”

Desmond gave his longtime friend a heartfelt atta-boy, saying, “Barry Blomquist is doing so much,” adding with a grin, “and he hasn’t shot himself yet.”

Blomquist shot holes in the original budget, though. When Desmond persuaded him to sign on and said the renovation budget was $700,000, Blomquist countered that they would need a deeper bucket, so another million was added to the fiscal plan.

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Anything less than rebuilding the boat “would have been just a Band-Aid,” said Dykman, whose ties to the JBS date to his start as a deckhand in 2000 after his Navy service, during which he served on a submarine in Pearl Harbor.

During summers and as a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Dykman worked his way up to the pilothouse and officially will be the proud lady’s captain when it creates wakes on the Mississippi again, perhaps as early as September.

When last we set foot on the 108-by-26-foot craft a year ago, it was in dry dock at Newt Marine in Dubuque, Iowa, where it had been for several months while it was largely gutted and stripped to its bones, with some of the skeleton discarded because of rot or rust.

Extensive sandblasting, repairs, welding and painting were done below the water line inside and out before the 98-gross-ton JBS was towed back to La Crosse in August to continue the restoration.

Workers from local contractors were able to practice their crafts throughout the winter because the Belle was sheathed in plastic to rebuff the elements, with only two days of lost worktime.

As a Save the Belle Foundation employee and board member, Dykman is doing much of the grunt work, along with Dillon Connor, a steam engine fanatic since he was 8 who has mastered the science to become the Belle’s steam engineer in his early 20s. They and various contractors are bringing the Belle into this century.

“We are very, very lucky to have Eric and Dillon,” Blomquist said. “They are passionate about it.”

That dedication has been as vital to the project as the meticulous approach to the work, flexible enough to surprises that bubbled to the surface at every turn.

Sandblasting uncovered numerous holes and weaknesses that had been patched deftly and painted over the years, forcing replacement rather than repair, Desmond said.

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Perhaps the most surprising items salvaged from the Belle’s original equipment are the 100-year-old steam engines that make the massive stern wheel go round and round to propel the boat.

The engines, built at Gillett and Eaton in Lake City, Minn., in 1915, originally powered the 500-passenger, 21-car City of Baton Rouge ferry boat. The late Capt. Dennis Trone, a noted marine architect, designed the Belle to replicate one of the 1880s-era packet boats that were the workhorses on the nation’s rivers. He snapped up the Baton Rouge engines when the ferry boat was retired in 1971.

Even though the engines have logged more than 1 million miles and languished in neglect before the foundation launched its mission, they are in fine fettle after some routine maintenance, Dykman said.

One of the most difficult chores in the project has been sandblasting, Desmond said.

“Sandblasting on the river is really tough because you can’t let the sand fall into the river,” Desmond said. “They had to catch it and carry it off in buckets.”

That was not the biggest all of the hurdles - and there have been many - that the project has encountered, he said.

“The worst problem is that new Coast Guard regulations apply, just like a new boat,” he said. “They said it had to be able to withstand a 30-foot headwall. Where on the Mississippi River are you going to run into something like that?”

The committee had to navigate the regulatory waters with the Coast Guard - first to Minneapolis, then to Washington, D.C., and to St. Louis before being bounced back to Minneapolis - until it obtained an exemption.

“It was a headache, Desmond said. “Nobody wanted to make a decision. Nobody wanted to hang their butts out.”

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Blomquist underscored the need to cooperate with the Coast Guard, which he described as a “partner that can make your life easy or miserable.”

The boat appears to be a mess in its skeletal stage - perhaps worse than it did during demolition phase in Dubuque, Blomquist ventured to say. But the structural progress is apparent, with shiny steel framework for the walls and reinforced anchoring to the decks, burnished steel on the new stairways, sandblasted ceilings either repainted already or awaiting a new coat, substantial walls in the galley area and the restoration of the below-deck compartments that house the boat’s mechanical guts.

A stone’s throw from the JBS is the monumental paddlewheel, which appears sturdy and may need little repair as it await its turn at sandblasting and repainting.

“It’s kinda like framing a house,” Blomquist said. “It doesn’t look good until you have the walls and siding up.”

“I didn’t think we would have to strip down so far, but we had to do it right,” Dykman said.

The restoration process would have been easier and faster had the foundation been able to employ its original plan to dry-dock the boat inside at SkipperLiner Industries in La Crosse instead of towing it to Dubuque and back. But the boat builder ran aground and closed in October 2014, still feeling the ripple effect of the recession even as other businesses were rebounding.

Blomquist promised that, when the plastic wrap comes off in two or three weeks, people will be able to see the ship take shape quickly after the pilot house and smokestacks are returned to their rightful places.

Vendors and contractors then will be able to shift into high gear on the interior, with Kish and Sons Electric Co. installing wiring, lighting and other utility hook-ups for accoutrements such as speakers and screens for the boat’s audio-visual facets.

Libby Weber, a Save the Julia Belle Foundation member and manager of The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern, which will provide catering for the Belle, is helping design the interior, which will be reminiscent of the elegance of the riverboats of yore, Desmond said.

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In line with the foundation’s mission as a nonprofit, it must include educational elements to maintain tax-exempt status, it also is working with the La Crosse School District to develop educational programs for its fifth-graders, Desmond said.

Historical murals are planned to bolster the education aspect, which will include history of the river and settlements along nature’s artery for human transportation, industry, fishing and supplies, he said.

Also in the works are plans for short excursions on which passengers will be able to take the Belle up to Winona, disembark to eat and tour the Minnesota Marine Art Museum before returning to La Crosse on a bus.

Long trips would be too expensive for the Belle, which will be one of only five authentic steamboats in the United States still in operation, because its steam engines can consumer 40 to 75 gallons of diesel fuel an hour, Dykman said.

When paying passengers will be able to board the Belle seems to be a floating target - and minor debate - among some board members. Desmond suggested September, an estimate that seemed to evoke a gulp from Dykman (but not a choke), while Blomquist suggested that the launch will happen sometime in the fall.

They were unified in projecting that the testing phase will begin in September.

“We’ve got a lot of equipment to test, and we run on donations,” so any additional tweaks will depend on finances, the captain said.

A car restoration buff during his landlubbing hours, Blomquist said the reclamation process is similar on land or sea.

He reflected on one of his four-wheeled projects, saying, “It was a good-looking car when I got it, but it was just a pile of parts” between the dismantling and piecing it back together.

“All of a sudden, it looks like a jewel,” he said, a trace of awe in his voice at the car’s newfound roadworthiness and the prospects for the Julia Belle Swain’s emergence from its cocoon.

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Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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