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Julia Belle Swain restoration near completion

Julia Belle Swain restoration near completion

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - After two and a half  years of work, the historic Julia Belle Swain boat is nearly complete.

The boat which was built in 1970, is a replica of a steamboat built in the early 1900's. And as with many things built long ago, the boat began to lose its steam.

But leave it to a handyman to restore a big part of the Mississippi River history.

Most people would shy away from something old and rusty, but for a guy like Barry Blomquist, it's the worn-out things he finds most interesting.

"Some people are talented in other ways," Blomquist says.

Take the Julia Belle Swaine for instance, the old boat was powered by two steam engines. However after years of navigating the waters of the Mississippi River, it began to slow down and eventually stopped in 2008. But that part of history, began to see a new future.

"When it came to the calliope, I kind of searched around trying to find somebody that could work on this and I finally decided it was probably going to be me," Blomquist said.

The organ produces sound by sending steam through the pipes. Blomquist rewired it to work digitally.

It's not the easiest project, Blomquist says. But the 70-year-old Onalaska resident has years of handy work under his belt.

"I've restored a lot of automobiles over my lifetime and built a lot of things and it was kind of an unusual project that sounded interesting, that I thought I was capable of managing," he said.

"I cant say that I did it all, you're almost like a conductor, you tell everybody else what to do but somebody's gotta have the ability and understanding how all the pieces go back together."

By re-crafting the old organ and placing electronic switches on the keys to supply the notes in each pipe, the boat is almost ready to replay sounds that will soon bring back a beloved boat.

"Every piece on the calliope now is either stainless steel, anything that would corrode is stainless steel there is some aluminum parts and chrome plates, there is some brass parts but there is nothing anymore that would rust or corrode on it," Blomquist said.

"It's a real historical gem and I think La Crosse is very fortunate to have it," he said.

About 400 hours of sweat equity was put into the final pieces. m

Members from the Julia Belle Swain Foundation also played a big role in helping to restore the boat.

They anticipate the boat should be completed sometime next year.

Once completed, the foundation plans to host events and tours on the boat.

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