After more than a year away, and two tourist seasons missed, the William A. Irvin is nearly ready to make its return voyage to Duluth.
Last September, the city was forced to orchestrate a complicated move of the 610-foot retired iron ore freighter, to allow for the cleanup of polluted sediment and the repair of a seawall at the Minnesota Slip, where the Irvin had been moored as a museum ship for several decades.
The Irvin’s departure left a large void in the harbor slip, located between the Canal Park tourist district and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, or DECC.
“Duluth residents and especially people downtown really miss seeing it,” said Chelly Townsend, executive director of the DECC, which owns and manages the ship as a tourist attraction. “We hear that a lot. We hear people say, ‘When's our boat coming back?’ It's such a landmark for those who work downtown and in Canal Park."
It’s also a moneymaker for the DECC, luring about 36,000 tourists per year, and earning around $200,000 annually.
The Irvin was closed to visitors in the summer of 2018 ahead of the move. And since the ship had to move — for the first time in more than 30 years — the DECC decided to complete needed repairs on the ore boat, which was built by U.S. Steel in 1938, the company’s first new ship after the Great Depression.
The ship was towed across the harbor to Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wis., where it got a fresh coat of paint, and where workers identified and repaired more than 200 corroded rivets in the ship’s hull — work paid for by a $504,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Now the ship is nearly ready to make its return journey back across the harbor to Duluth. The Irvin doesn’t have a working engine, so it will be towed back to the slip, Townsend said, hopefully by mid-October.
But a very calm day will be needed to execute the move back into the slip, through a blue pedestrian drawbridge that crosses the opening. That bridge, which was built after the Irvin was moored in the slip, allows only about seven inches of clearance on either side when the ship passes through.
Winches attached to the ship’s bow and stern will pull the ship slowly through the bridge opening, at a top speed of only one foot every four seconds. A barge will be stationed alongside the ship to keep it straight as it moves into the slip.
Townsend said she expects a crowd of onlookers to watch the ship return, just as they gathered to see the ship off last year.
She’s already started to plan a welcome back party for the Irvin for the spring of 2020, when she says the ship will be reopened to the public.
"We're really excited,” she said. “It's really important, and we've missed it.”