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Irvin faces a tight squeeze as preliminary plans to move historic ship underway in Duluth

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The S.S. William A. Irvin has sat in Minnesota Slip since 1986. Tentative plans to move the 611-foot-long freighter out of the slip so that contaminated bottom sediments can be leveled and covered with clean material are moving forward. Moving the floating museum would present difficulties, as it is only inches narrower than the open channel when the slip’s pedestrian bridge is in the open position. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 3
In January, the William A. Irvin was intentionally moved for the first time in 32 years to give workers the room to repair Minnesota Slip’s failing sea wall. Launched in 1937, the Irvin worked until 1978. In 1986, the laker was moved from West Duluth to Minnesota Slip and opened as a floating museum. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn.—Plans are being laid to move the SS William A. Irvin out of Minnesota Slip for the first time in more than three decades. But the retired laker will face a tight squeeze — with just 15 total inches to spare — as it passes between the abutments of a pedestrian lift bridge that spans the slip.

In spite of the Irvin's size — stretching 611 feet from stem to stern with a 30-foot beam — LeRoy Kolenda, a Fraser Shipyards foreman, expressed confidence the vessel can be successfully navigated into the harbor without damage to either it or the bridge.

"The key will be to keep the ship under control at all times," he said, adding that wave action, currents and other marine traffic all will need to be closely monitored.

The Irvin is owned and operated as a floating museum by the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, an organization that has yet to fully sign off on the move.

At a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the DECC Board of Directors, the president of that body, Roger Reinert, expressed concern about potentially causing harm to the recently upgraded bridge.

In 2017, Duluth invested about $3 million to overhaul and replace the lifting mechanism for the bridge, which had been plagued for years by breakdowns.

In order to make room for the Irvin's transit, that new mechanism will be disengaged, and one side of the bridge will need to be manually pinned in more of an upright position than it can achieve when in operation.

Chad Scott, a principal partner of AMI Consulting Engineers, offered assurances that the process should result in no harm to the bridge and predicted it probably would be out of commission for a week at most.

If the ship isn't moved, the city could be denied $1.3 million in federal funding set aside to address pollution in the slip, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration.

Filby Williams made a pitch to the DECC Board of Directors on Tuesday, asking it for assistance and warning of potential project delays and further disruption without their cooperation.

Because of ongoing seawall repairs, the Irvin has been unable to welcome visitors this year. It currently sits idle at anchor in the slip.

Contracts for the cleanup work will need to be awarded shortly to keep the project on track said Crague Biglow, a Superfund supervisor for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He said that work can occur only in the Irvin's absence.

The project involves leveling out contaminated sediments that have accumulated in the slip and then hauling in clean dredge materials to cap the pollution in place.

Relocating the Irvin will be a labor-intensive ordeal that could cost upward of $600,000.

Filby Williams laid out a proposal Tuesday, asking the DECC to cover half of the cost, up to a maximum of $300,000. He said the city would pick up the other half, as well as any unexpected cost overruns.

The city also has offered to purchase insurance to cover any damage to the ship or bridge.

The Irvin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and plans to move it will require approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.

If approved, plans call for the Irvin to leave Minnesota Slip in September, then moor temporarily on the harborside seawall in back of the DECC. It would reopen for visitors in time for Halloween, when it operates as a popular "haunted ship."

In November, the Irvin would be moved to Fraser Shipyards, where it would be placed in dry dock and repainted for first time in more than 30 years. Filby Williams noted that the ship is overdue for some work and pointed to a recent inspection that revealed portions of the hull had been pitted, leaving steel that was half its original thickness.

Filby Williams extended the city's offer to seek a $300,000 historic preservation grant to cover restoration costs incurred at Fraser, with the ship to return to Minnesota Slip in May.

The DECC's board unanimously passed a resolution of intent to partner with the city of Duluth, but a final, formal agreement still will need to be approved before the cleanup can progress.

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