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Once-dormant Mississippi River steamboat in middle of extensive restoration

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LA CROSSE, Wisconsin — A 44-year-old steamboat that once roamed the Mississippi River is in the midst of a painstaking restoration to save the historic vessel.

The Julia Belle Swain has been getting work done for the past six months at a facility in Dubuque, Iowa, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1GQhaXs ) reported. Much of the historic paddlewheel has been gutted.

The 108-by-26-foot vessel will get a new paint job and interior expansion when it returns to its home port of La Crosse for the next renovation phase. It also will be equipped with a new boiler and generators, as well as modern amenities, such as LED lighting and air conditioning, and aluminum windows to give it an antique appearance.

The boat is scheduled to be towed to La Crosse in July and expected to return to service next year, according to future boat captain Eric Dykman, who's a board member of the nonprofit Save the Julia Belle Swain organization. The group purchased the boat for $250,000 in 2013 and has since been working to fund the $2 million restoration project.

"The renovation is kind of a long process," Dykman said, "but we're doing everything right. We're not just slapping up a barn."

The Julia Belle Swain was built in 1971 in Dubuque. It was designed by Capt. Dennis Trone, a highly respect marine architect, to replicate a 1880s-era packet boat.

The steamboat was so authentic that it appeared in two movies about the heyday of steamboats on the Mississippi River, "Tom Sawyer" in 1973 and "Huckleberry Finn" the following year.

The boat operated out of Peoria, Illinois, for several years and later in Chattanooga, Tennessee, until it accumulated too much debt and was sold in 1994 to Bob Kalhagen of Madison for $500,000. The Julia Bell Swain then operated as an excursion business out of La Crosse, taking tourists out on the river, from 1995 to 2008.

"A lot of people are very passionate about steamboats," Dykman said. "Some are just passionate about riverboats, but this one is so special."


Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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