Too many hurdles dash hopes for historic Dredge Thompson

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The Dredge William A. Thompson has been moored near the backwaters of the Mississippi near the Prairie du Chien marina since 2012. It was moved April 5, during high water, to its final resting spot behind Blair Dillman’s home on County K. The vessel is pictured here near the Winneshiek Bar. (Photo by Dan Moris)

By Correne Martin

On April 5, the William A. Thompson dredge boat was moved from north of Prairie du Chien to its final resting spot at Blair Dillman’s home along County Highway K. He said the majority of it will be scrapped out this coming winter. Though, the top will be donated to the historical museum in Fountain City, where the dredge sat at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers service base prior to coming to Prairie du Chien on June 13, 2012.

According to the non-profit Community Development Alternatives (CDA), of Prairie du Chien, it acquired the vessel with the intent to convert it into a museum and preserve its rich history of service on the Upper Mississippi River. However, it has been moored in the backwaters of the Mississippi near the Prairie du Chien marina since 2012.

The dredge was named after William A. Thompson, a Corps employee from 1878 through 1925. In 1896, he was appointed to the position of assistant engineer, responsible for improvements on the Mississippi River between Winona, Minn., and the mouth of the Wisconsin River at Prairie du Chien. He held this post until his death.

Affectionately known to many as the “big banana boat,” according to the Corps, the Dredge Thompson was built in 1936, by the Dravo Corporation of Pittsburgh, for the St. Paul District, for nearly $900,000, or $1.3 million with contract modifications. It was christened in Pittsburgh in March 1937 by William Thompson’s granddaughter, Louise, and first sent to New York, where its galley, mess and quarters were fitted. It was then returned to Pittsburgh, where crews completed its construction. 

In May 1937, it made a 1,700-mile trip down the Ohio and up the Mississippi rivers, arriving at its permanent station in Fountain City, May 22, 1937. Through nearly seven decades of service, the Thompson’s original design was only slightly modified. In 2005, it was replaced by the Dredge Goetz.

The Corps’ St. Paul District used the Thompson to maintain and clear sediment on 850 miles of the Upper Mississippi River, 335 miles of the Illinois River and other inland rivers from May 1937 until May 2005, well after its projected life of 50 years. While in use, it was the largest of its type and meticulously maintained throughout its working life.

According to the Corps of Engineers, the Dredge Thompson was an icon on the river. It saw the transitioning of the Upper Mississippi River from steamboats, Mark Twain and lead lines to state-of-art, diesel-electric power and a new era of channel maintenance by the Corps.

“It was a beautiful old boat, but there were too many hurdles,” Dillman said, indicating that the difficulty was mostly because of the agencies who required a part in the restoration of the dredge. 

Though the high hopes for the vessel appear defeated, Prairie du Chien was chosen years ago to accept it because of its fitting river history—some of which follows.

According to CDA, more than 100 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, two Frenchmen with five other voyageurs entered the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Father Marquette and Joliet laid eyes on what is now Prairie du Chien on June 17, 1673. By 1685, another Frenchman, Nicolas Perrot, built trading posts or forts at various locations, one at the southern limits of Prairie du Chien. River traffic was the only practical means of transportation for personal goods, and Prairie du Chien was strategically located for this purpose. In 1823, the first steamboat to navigate the upper Mississippi River, named “Virginia,” arrived on the riverfront in Prairie du Chien. With the arrival in 1857 of the first rail line connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River, Prairie du Chien soon became a transportation hub—where land, rail, and river transportation came together.

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