by NATHANIEL NELSON
The historic William A. Thompson Dredge, the fabled yellow U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) vessel, which once traveled the Mississippi River carving out one of the most important commercial channels in the Midwest, may soon be headed to the scrap yard. It’s Prairie du Chien owner has failed to raise any funds during the more than five years since it took ownership of the vessel, hosting no public fundraisers and failing to secure grant dollars or find partners to transform it into a marine museum. Now, it’s pushed the deadline to raise $1 million to this fall, of the iconic dredge may be sold for scrap.
The Dredge Thompson was in operation from 1937 to 2008 and, at the time, it was the single largest piece of equipment in use by the USACE and the first dredge of its kind, able to dredge up to a 23.5-foot depth. It helped maintain 850 miles of the Upper Mississippi, and almost single-handedly helped the region recover from the destructive Dust Bowl and Great Depression. In the process, the boat became a loved staple along the river near its home harbor in Fountain City.
The ship was moved downstream in 2012, after it was purchased from the federal government by Prairie du Chien-based nonprofit Community Development Alternatives (CDA) for $19.37. The goal was to raise $1 million to transform the boat into a river transportation museum centered on the Upper Mississippi, but CDA has come up empty-handed.
Last December, Dale Klemme, executive director of CDA, stated that the organization would pursue scrapping the vessel this June if the money wasn’t raised, but the deadline has been extended to provide time for one last fundraising push.
“We moved it to a backwater location during a flood event so we didn’t risk it floating away, and that’s where it’s parked right now,” Klemme explained. “We’ve decided to give it another go, seeing as we were able to move it into a safe location during the high water and give it another shot.”
“We’re giving it until the end of fall to put the pieces together,” Klemme added.
However, the task of renovating and transforming the sleeping vessel into a museum is easier said than done, Klemme said. The first step for the organization was to reach out to the various barge companies down the Mississippi River, who had benefited from the dredge’s long career, and ask for support. In the first round, the requests went nowhere.
In response, CDA applied for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) planning grant in 2013 to fund a feasibility study for the museum and create a concrete plan for the renovations. According to the organization’s 2013 annual report, “the proposed interpretive strategy of the museum will develop four themes, including life aboard the vessel, the history of dredging technology, impacts of dredging on the river, and the national story of the Nine-Foot Channel Project.”
“We felt that if we received the planning grant and could show it was financially feasible, a plan of that sort and a second proposal to the barge companies would show that this isn’t just a pipe dream,” Klemme said.
However, the grant proposal was denied, and the dredge continued to float silently in the river. Klemme explained that following the denial of the grant, CDA reached out to the NEA to figure out how the organization could improve the plan, and also received some advice from representatives from the National Park Service on how to gain traction, but the second time around was no more successful than the first.
“We are still trying to find entities that are interested in participating to preserve the dredge,” Klemme said. “Winona had a problem with the same thing.”
The craft was originally slated to be docked next to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, but after the costs were deemed to be too high, CDA came in and purchased the craft, and moved it to Prairie du Chien, where it has remained docked for the last five years before being moved during this spring’s flooding.
“It’s been sitting here for a number of years, and we haven’t done anything on the maintenance side,” Klemme said. The boat has lead paint and asbestos that must be dealt with before the public can enter or renovations can be made, and the $1 million would allow the group to bring the vessel up to standards to allow its use and public access to the boat, as well as renovate it into a museum to continue to tell its story. The vessel will also need to be relocated either on land or in very shallow water to keep museum-goers safe in the event something goes wrong.
However, even if the $1 million is found, that won’t be the end of the museum’s struggles.
“The problem is that museums do not generate a revenue stream to support [them], particularly if you are a seasonal museum. With a museum like this … November through April, kiss that season goodbye,” Klemme said.
What about working with the city? Prairie du Chien Mayor Dave Hemmer explained that CDA has not reached out to the city for help with the museum, or to plan any sort of public fundraiser for the project.
“He hasn’t told me much of anything,” Hemmer said.
“There are other riverfront improvement projects and capital investments that the city, rightfully so, sees as more important,” Klemme explained. “But this shouldn’t be seen as a city project, but more of a river-basin project.”
CDA has never held any public fundraisers for the Dredge Thompson, Klemme explained, but that was intentional –– not because the group is not seeking funding, but because small local fundraisers would only be a drop in the bucket.
“That’s like saying I need to raise money for a house, so I’m going to start by having a bake sale in our back yard,” Klemme said. “It might make you feel good to make $300 selling popcorn at the county fair, but you’re not going to raise $600,000 in the long haul unless you find something bigger.”
The current goal is to continue the search for a financial backer, Klemme explained, once again traveling the Mississippi from the headwaters to New Orleans to find a group that is willing to pitch in. Some items from the dredge have already been placed in other historical centers in the region, including in Fountain City, Klemme added, but making the boat into a museum remains the priority.
However, if CDA continues to strike out, the only course of action left will be to scrap the craft, Klemme stated.
Klemme explained that the value of the dredge in scrap metal has not been calculated yet, since everything from the removal of the lead paint to the transportation will change the final tally, but added that “it wouldn’t be a great amount, all said and done.”
“We would all like there to be some other outcome, and we would certainly put off that plan if there was a glimmer of hope someplace,” Klemme said. “There is a glimmer of hope, but I’m not sure where the light is coming from.”
For more information on the Dredge Thompson or donation opportunities, contact Community Development Alternatives at 608-326-7333 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.