For weeks, workers in masks, face shields and layered clothing have spent their days aboard the historic William M. Black in Dubuque gently peeling away at its 86-year-old paint job.
It has been a tedious, slow-moving project, but as the paint comes off the boat, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s first exhibit gets closer and closer to reopening.
The lead-paint-abatement project on the 277-foot dredge in the Ice Harbor has been years in the making.
“It’s been a long process,” said Erin Dragotto, the museum’s vice president of development. “I am going to celebrate when this is all done, (but) the actual work doesn’t take that long.”
The museum landed a $66,999 grant from the National Park Service in 2016 for the project. But before work could begin, Dragotto said, museum officials partnered with the City of Dubuque and State Historic Preservation Office to hire the correct people to perform the work while preserving the historic vessel.
“There is an overseer to make sure you are doing the project the way you are supposed to be doing the project,” she said. “The City of Dubuque is that for us. We need to make sure any materials that we use aren’t going to destroy the boat.”
After years of getting the details in place, Iowa-Illinois Taylor Insulation recently started work to remove the lead-based paint and then to give the William M. Black a fresh coat.
“When it was built, lead paint wasn’t thought to be a thing,” Dragotto said. “Not unlike your home, it’s not good for you. It wasn’t a visitor hazard (currently), but we just wanted to make sure when the boat ages, it wasn’t going to become a hazard.”
In September 1979, the steamboat arrived in Dubuque after it was acquired from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Jerry Enzler, president emeritus of the river museum. The boat opened to the public the following year.
During its heyday, the boat was manned by more than 60 people who worked and slept aboard it. They took it up and down the Missouri River, dredging up and moving sand to deepen the river while also creating beaches, he said. Similar vessels worked on the Mississippi River.
“It’s a time capsule of a different time and era,” Enzler said. “It is a significant artifact that shows how we as a nation were going to utilize the Mississippi for navigation.”
Although the boat, which was named after a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who helped build the Panama Canal, does not have a historical connection to Dubuque, it has been in the city for four decades.
“It is a very significant artifact,” Enzler said. “For many people, it is their favorite thing about the museum. It’s an important, immersive experience.”
The boat was the museum’s first exhibit — and the whole museum for a time.
“The whole river museum was that,” Enzler said. “Your river museum was simply to go on the William M. Black. Tremendous things have happened since then.”
It will open for the season later this month, complete with a fresh coat of paint and ready to mark its 40th anniversary as an open exhibit in Dubuque.
“I am excited that it will get a new facelift, and it will be an attractive artifact for people to explore for future generations,” Dragotto said. “We need to do everything in our power to keep this historic structure alive. It is a major part of history for Dubuque.”