Captain Eric Dykman displays a section of the original deck railings after sandblasting and powder coating. The four-inch skirt on the bottom was added to increase the height to meet U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
Here’s one of the two 1915 Gillette & Eaton steam engines that power the Julia Belle’s paddle wheel. The engines were salvaged from the City of Baton Rouge ferry and put on the Swain when it was built in 1971.
Crewman Dillon Connor is one of three employees of the Julia Belle Swain Foundation working on the restoration. This air-conditioned space on the second deck will be home to a full bar.
Insulation and an airlock were added to allow for air-conditioning.
The Julia Belle Swain has been undergoing restoration on the La Crosse riverfront, near Loggers Field, since 2015.
THE WATERWAYS JOURNAL,
JULY 10, 2017
At right, the Julia Belle Swain docked at LaCrosse in her heyday. Eric Dkykman photo.
Restoration making headway on iconic
upper Mississippi River paddle wheeler
By Emery Styron
The Julia Belle Swain is a mighty fine boat,
It’s got a mighty fine captain, too.
It’s got a big red wheel that goes round and round,
And a bunch of old hippies for a crew.
John Hartford’s bouncy tribute to the famous paddle wheeler was on the mark in 1975, but 40 years later, the iconic steamer was as rickety as some of those old hippies. Thanks to the Julia Belle Foundation and some dedicated river rats, the beloved craft is a mighty fine boat again — or will be soon if another million or so dollars comes in.
Captain Trone’s creation
The Dubuque Boiler & Boat Works’ final production, designed by Captain Dennis Trone and christened in 1971, was built around the steam engines, pitman arms, paddlewheel and ships wheel salvaged from the City of Baton Rouge ferry, retired to service as a dock on the LeClaire, Iowa riverfront.
Trone, co-owner of the boatyard that’s now part of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium complex, built the craft on the lines of an 1830s steamer. His creation was a grand, four-tiered, blue and white wedding cake of a boat, piled on a swan-curved main deck. Fancy railings and canopies graced her upper levels. Powder blue shutters flanked her long rows of cabin windows. Fore and aft lags fluttered gaily, and smoke puffed from black, feather-crowned stacks framing the scalloped-roofed, glass-sided pilothouse atop it all.
Trone based the Julia Belle on the Illinois River, where the first Julia Belle Swain cruised in the early 1900s, offering excursions from Peoria. Passengers enjoyed relaxed travel amid the fragrances of steam and valve oil, swaying to the gentle rhythm of the slapping paddle wheel and whooshing engines. Passengers could watch the scenery glide by from behind the livestock fencing on the open-air main deck, or from ornate dining rooms on the upper decks as they sipped drinks served from the hand-carved wooden bar.
Hartford maintained his master’s license by sometimes piloting the boat and dropped the Julia Belle’s name in several songs. Movie appearances in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” spread her fame, as did a 1976 win over the Delta Queen in Louisville’s Great American Steamboat Race.
Her profile rose even higher when the Julia Belle returned to the Mississippi in 1978 and became “a lodestone for LeClaire as a born-again river attraction,” wrote Quad-City Times columnist Bill Wundram. Local balladeer Cecil Fletcher even suggested “the belle of the waters” may have found a soulmate in her sister ship when he sang, “Your love for the Twilight is just like a dream, when the two of you are side by side in the middle of the stream.”
Perhaps an air of mystery added to her allure. In her book, “Haunted Peoria,” Stephanie McCarthy described “restless spirits” that migrated to the Julia Belle from the Baton Rouge.
In any case, the Julia Belle was sold upriver in 1994 to Madison entrepreneur Bob Kalhagen, who docked her in La Crosse. Cruising between Winona and Prairie Du Chien, she garnered fans and media attention, including a 1997 cover story in Midwest Living, photo features in the New York Times magazine and National Geographic and movie roles in “Life on the Mississippi,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and the IMAX film, “Mark Twain’s America.”
The good times ended in 2008. Kalhagen moored her at an isolated spot off French Island, where the elements took their toll until 2013, when a local benefactor tossed her a life rope.
Coast Guard: ‘the hidden partner’
“If we hadn’t picked it up at the time we did, it would have probably been dismantled,” says John Desmond, president of the Julia Belle Swain Foundation, which bought the boat for $250,000. The foundation’s major benefactor is Don Weber, who founded Logistics Health Inc. in La Crosse and sold it to United Healthcare and still owns the Waterfront Restaurant in the community.
Workers at Dubuque’s Newt Marine stripped the Julia Belle from stem to stern, uncovering case after case of hidden damage. “It was like buying an old house and finding termites,” recalls Barry Blomquist, who served for a year-and-a-half as volunteer project manager for the restoration.
Chunks of iron as big as 10 ft. x 24 ft. were cut out and replaced per orders of the U.S. Coast Guard, called by Blomquist “the hidden partner in all of this.” Among other USCG requirements: widening doors and raising the height of railings. The project has taken longer and cost far more than anyone anticipated.
When the boat came back to La Crosse, where it was tied up near Copeland Park, it was sandblasted throughout. The low point came this winter as the skeletal boat sat encased in plastic and the three restoration crewmembers lugged tons of grit to shore in five-gallon buckets.
Things have progressed this spring. Aluminum plate roofing replaced cabin walls and shingles and tarpaper deck roofs. A new $90,000 diesel-powered boiler and a pair of $45,000 generators were installed, along with a bow thruster, a prop-like device that will make it easier to maneuver the T-rated vessel to its eventual dock at Riverside Park. The Julia Belle was originally built to carry 400 passengers, but will now top out at 149.
Other modern additions include air conditioning, insulation in dining room walls and an elevator to move passengers between decks. The foundation has an educational mission, but the Julia Belle will help earn her keep with dinner cruises, catered by Weber’s restaurant. The lift and air conditioning are musts for today’s passengers, said Captain Eric Dykman.
The boat’s locomotion system — steam engines, pitman arms and paddlewheel — were still in a state of disassembly when this reporter visited in May. The engines were in place and in good order mechanically, but will be repainted in bright colors and walled behind Plexiglas on the lower deck. Dillon Connor, who is helping restore the Julia Belle, is working toward certification as the ship’s engineer.
Dykman is looking forward to seeing the boat “look like the Julia Belle Swain again.” He estimates it is 80 to 90 percent done. One finishing touch will be the reinstallation of the steam calliope, which Blomquist has been rebuilding at his home.
When will the Julia Belle be finished?
Costs have climbed to north of $1.8 million and Weber, the main benefactor, has hit his limit, so the foundation is turning to smaller donors and grants to finish the project, said Desmond. That will require at least another $500,000, he said.
That’s a conservative figure, according to Dykman, who declines to predict when the boat will be finished. “I’m trying to stay out of the projection business,” he said, standing amidst stacks of bright-red paddle-wheel sections on the riverbank. “Too many things are beyond my control.”
It all depends how the money flows, but his best guess is test cruises this fall and full operation by May 2018. Want to help write the next verse in the Julia Belle Swain ballad? Send a check to the Julia Belle Swain Foundation.
Julia Belle Swain Foundation
620 Cass St., LaCrosse, WI 54601
The mission of the Julia Belle Swain Foundation, a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, is to “restore and renovate the Julia Belle Swain, preserving its historical authenticity, and to then use the steamboat for exclusively charitable educational purposes.”
The foundation raises funds through gifts, grants, partnerships and sponsorships. Rental of the facility will also be available when the restoration is done. The foundation plans to display of educational materials on or near the boat relating to its history, natural and cultural environments. The foundation also makes educational presentations to schools, service organizations and the general public.
The Julia Belle Swain, when operational, will be based at Riverside Park, 100 State St., LaCrosse.