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Duluth's floating tourist attraction, the William A. Irvin, to be closed another year

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Moving the William A. Irvin
The stern of the 610-foot William A. Irvin passes through the Minnesota Slip pedestrian drawbridge on Sept. 21, 2018, in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2018

The William A. Irvin — the retired iron ore freighter turned floating museum in Duluth — will be closed for another summer. 

The city of Duluth was forced to relocate the 611-foot ship from its longtime home in the Minnesota Slip last fall, to allow for the cleanup of underwater contaminated sediment. 

The plan was to use that opportunity to have the ship's corroding hull repainted and brought back to Duluth this year in time to have it open for the busy tourist season. 

But the Irvin was delayed at Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wis., by other, active Great Lakes ships ahead of it in line, said Chelly Townsend, executive director of Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Now, Townsend said, the Irvin won't return to Duluth until sometime later this year. Visitors will have to wait until next year. 

"I think it's a big disappointment to our tourists," she said. "We have tourists who see it every couple of years, and they'll have gone two seasons without the Irvin."

The delay also is a financial blow to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which lost an estimated $200,000 in tourist revenue from the Irvin last year, and expects to lose a similar amount this year. 

Townsend said she's been surprised by the outpouring of questions and support from the public, who miss the Irvin along the Duluth waterfront, where it's sat for more than 30 years. 

"People miss the Irvin, it really is an iconic piece for the city, and I think it's going to be really exciting to have it back," Townsend said.

But there is one challenging factor in returning the ship to Duluth. 

To bring the Irvin to the shipyard last fall, it had to be towed through the Minnesota Slip pedestrian drawbridge, which was built after the Irvin was berthed in the slip. 

And the ship barely had enough room to squeeze through — only 7 inches on either side. 

Because the Irvin's engines hadn't run in years, winches attached to barges pulled the ship, slowly, through the drawbridge. Slow as in a maximum speed of one foot every four seconds. 

It took about four hours to clear the bridge. The move cost the city about $600,000. And it will cost a similar amount to bring it back. 

Townsend said she doesn't know when the move will occur. But it's likely self-described "boat nerds" will once again line the sides of the slip to watch the giant ship return home.