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Move over Irvin: Museum ship shifted to allow work

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Two excavators in unison push the William A. Irvin a short distance from the west side of the Minnesota Slip, so workers will be able to build a new wall there this winter. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Workers with Wren Works LLC out of Poplar check the position and angle of the excavator buckets used to move the William A. Irvin Friday afternoon. Each bucket had a tire to use as a cushion against the ship so it wouldn't be damaged. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Two excavators use their buckets to push in tandem against the hull of the William A. Irvin, moving it a short distance away from the sea wall in the Minnesota Slip Friday afternoon. The ship needed to be moved away from the wall so a new wall along the slip's west side could be built this winter. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

To little fanfare, the William A. Irvin was moved intentionally on Friday for the first time since it settled into the Minnesota Slip in Superior Bay as a tourist attraction in 1986.

It didn't go far.

Once a workhorse as a lake freighter, the Irvin was unmoored and moved about 12-15 feet away from its dock wall and toward the center of the slip, so that workers will have room later this winter when they begin to repair the slip's failing sea wall.

"It's a pretty exciting day, really," said DECC building superintendent and Irvin museum director Steve Rankila. "There's always some weird project going on at the DECC."

Her snow-caked anchor suspended on a heavy chain above the water, the Irvin was moved, stern-first, by a pair of industrial excavators, whose operators extended their buckets and pushed the 610-foot ship away from its berth against the wall.

Contractors with Wren Works of Poplar were expected to keep their buckets on the Irvin until it froze in place at the center of the slip.

Excavators push against the William A. Irvin to move it away from the sea wall Friday afternoon. Bob King / News Tribune

In order to move the ship, Wren Works employees spent Thursday cutting out an open trench of water down the starboard side of the boat. They used chainsaws to cut the slip's 2 feet of ice into 12-foot square blocks which the men then rode Huck Finn-style out of the slip and into the bay.

Additional help for the project came from the Twin Ports Division of U.S. Navy Cadets, who undid the mooring lines, and Heritage Marine, whose tug helped get the ice moving away from the slip.

Sam Schultz and Robert Ugura were among the lucky few to observe the big ship make a short move. They came to Harbor Drive to watch the action after they'd been alerted to it by a social media post. At first, Ugura worried the Irvin was being moved out of the slip for good.

"I thought it was going out to the silos or something," he said. "It's a major component down here. I wouldn't want it anywhere else."

Schultz said she'd worked for eight years on the Irvin's Haunted Ship tours, which are annually the attraction's final event before regular tours start up again in the spring.

"We were at home and weren't doing anything, so we thought, 'Let's go see what's going on,' " Schultz said.

Sea walls in the area behind the DECC and in the slip itself have been failing in recent years. Wave action and displacement from heavy vessel traffic in the bay have taken their toll on the sea walls. Water is getting in behind the aging and deteriorating walls and compromising the ground around the DECC, creating sinkholes and other hazards. Several places along Harbor Drive have been fenced off from foot traffic as a result.

The city agreed in November to roughly $6 million in repairs — $2.1 million coming from a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency grant and the rest from city bonding.

AMI Consulting Engineers of Superior will be working with Veit Specialty Contractors of Duluth to install new heavy steel sheet piling to replace old wooden walls.

Jeff Stark, venue operations and Bayfront Festival Park supervisor for the DECC, said the Irvin has broken away from its moorings a couple of times since it was brought into the slip.

"We've had some violent storms where it let loose," Stark said. "But it didn't go far."

Work is expected to begin this winter, but DECC officials wanted to move the Irvin before the ice got so thick it wouldn't be possible to break out.

Additionally, the Irvin was disconnected from all utilities this week in anticipation of the move — electrical, telephone, fiber optic, water and sewer lines were all unhooked, Stark said.

The sea wall contractors will work from shore and also floating platforms in the slip. DECC officials said city workers were already busy assembling the floating platforms in space volunteered at a local warehouse.

"We've moving the boat away," Stark said, "and giving them a start."

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