What if Barry Blomquist had been around when Humpty Dumpty had his great fall? Chances are Blomquist would have accomplished what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t begin to do.
After all, the sky is the limit for a guy who can dismantle the Julia Belle Swain’s badly rusted antique steam calliope, have much of it retooled or recast into steel, brass and aluminum and rewire it to work digitally.
The calliope was a mess, like the rest of the 108-by-26-foot Belle before the nonprofit Save the Julia Belle Swain organization in La Crosse rescued it in 2013 from what appeared to be a final resting place rivaling Davy Jones’ Locker.
“I looked at what we had, and every single part was rusty,” Blomquist said.
What wasn’t rusty was corroded and/or paper thin and holey from five, or six, or seven decades — nobody knows for sure — of steam pounding through its manifold to force the pipes into action as its 32 keys were pressed. Contributing to the damage was the cyclical condensation to water after the steam cooled.
Blomquist estimates that he has spent about 400 hours rebuilding the instrument, which will signal the Belle’s return to the Mississippi River sometime next year — maybe May 1, perhaps June 1 or possibly, July 1 or some other date after the steam sternwheeler’s bow-to-aft makeover is complete.
He did it without coming up short of parts or, perhaps worse, having leftover doodads scattered about his massive workshop near West Salem.
The 70-year-old Onalaska resident’s knack for all things mechanical — on land or by sea — began when he was 14 and working at the used car dealership his dad, Bob, ran across Mormon Coulee Road from the vast vacant landscape where Shopko and the rest of Shelby Mall now stand.
His expertise in car building and reconstruction — he figures he has owned more than 500 cars, including several award-winning classics — evolved into a mastery of watercraft as founder and CEO of Mid-City Steel Fabricating, which was a subcontractor for the now-defunct SkipperLiner boat builder.
Blomquist began Mid-City in 1971, at the age of 26, as its sole employee and sold it in 2007, when it had grown to 80 or so workers.
It takes an orchestra to rebuild a boat
Even though Save the Julia Belle Swain leader John Desmond credits Blomquist with being the brains behind the endeavor as the unofficial project manager, Blomquist demurs, saying, “You don’t do something like this without the talents of a lot of other people. I’m the conductor, but a lot of people are in the orchestra.”
That might put C.J. Pelowski, a partner with Custom Fab and Machine in La Crosse in the percussion section. Pelowski “did a huge amount of machining new pipes” before AIH Chrome in Dubuque, Iowa, was enlisted to chrome them, Blomquist said.
Custom Fab, which also is doing yeoman work on the Julia Belle’s superstructure and walls, said that work wasn’t particularly difficult, as the firm is used to unique projects. The company also was tasked with building a new manifold to carry the steam to the pipes, as well as a new whistle to replace the original, which was falling apart.
The calliope project navigated uncharted waters because calliopes are rare, steam-powered ones are even more scarce and parts are harder to find than a Cubs sports bar in Cleveland.
Those factors were still another reason that resulted in Blomquist’s needing to resort to “my best seat-of-the-pants engineering techniques. I’ve tried to use all new parts, because the stainless steel and aluminum won’t rust and will last forever.”
The pipes now have all steel tops, with brass or copper on the outsides and insides because those metals are the easiest to chrome plate, he said.
“This has been a really neat project,” in part because of the technological leaps since the original was built, Blomquist said.
Unlike the original, when wood was used for ornamental features that fell prey to the elements, the new ones on Julia Belle Swain are largely aluminum with powder coating and will withstand the test of time, he said.
A water jet technique now is used to cut many metal parts, which is more versatile and precise and results in smoother cuts. The base for the calliope manifold is aluminum, with the boat’s name etched with water jets and painted red.
Cabinet is repurposed from church organ
Most boats that even have calliopes house the keyboards in plain metal cabinets, but the Julia Belle Swain’s is what appears to have been a converted church organ cabinet, also re-crafted to look like new.
The calliope worked when it was last used in 2008, but not very well, with some keys being dead and pipes out of commission. Blomquist has put electronic switches on each key, and electromagnets in each pipe will open and close to supply the notes.
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As for who will play it, Blomquist said, “We’ll find somebody, but you’re not gonna play Mozart or Chopin out of it. It’s never perfect. You get one close to middle C and tune the rest of the pipes to that. Each one will be a little off, but they all will be in sync.”
As the reconstruction of the boat itself, including wider cabins, all new walls, air conditioning, a new boiler and other accoutrements, has proceeded while the Julia Belle is moored on the Black River near Loggers Field at Copeland Park, the massive paddlewheel awaited its turn at sandblasting and painting.
Except, the workers found, vast sections of the spokes were rusted, a pattern of unexpected obstacles that has continued since the project began and had sent the craft to its birthplace in Dubuque for major hull work.
“It’s like when a lot of people bid on an old house,” Blomquist said. “You know all you have to do, until you are in the house and you find termites behind a wall. You get rid of them, and find termites behind another wall. You end up chasing termites all other.
“That’s basically what we have been doing, except that we’re chasing rust,” he said, shaking his head.
“On the paddlewheel, we could have patched it, but it would have cost just as much as building a new one, and you’d then you’d just have a patched one,” he said.
Paddlewheel is getting new spokes
So Custom Fab and Machine, which also built new ornamental smokestacks for the Belle, has been crafting new spokes, in half-moon sections that are being taken to the boat to be joined and new wood installed for the paddles.
“It wasn’t too bad,” said Pelowski, obviously speaking from the perspective of somebody who knows how to do the job and finds such jobs more intriguing than daunting. “We had to start from scratch, building in sections, and we’ll weld them together.”
The cat-and-mouse game with rust and corrosion, the Save the Julia Belle Swain group’s insistence on rebuilding rather than patching and the U.S. Coast Guard’s code specifications are the main culprits in delaying the Julia Belle Swain’s projected launch from this year into the middle of 2017, if then.
The organization bought the boat for $250,000, and the project originally was budgeted at around $2 million, a figure expected to continue to rise like the Mississippi after a long winter’s snow melt.
“This boat wouldn’t be done without charitable people,” Blomquist said.
Logistics Health Inc. founder Don Weber has been one of the major benefactors of the project, which also has received other donations and is seeking grants as a nonprofit.
Traditional lines retained
The reconstruction of the historic craft is hewing closely to the original design of late Capt. Dennis Trone. The highly respected marine architect designed the Belle to replicate one of the 1880s-era packet boats that were workhorses on the nation's rivers.
Trone was so meticulous that the Julia Belle Swain passed historical muster to star in two movies about the heyday of steamboats on Old Man River — "Tom Sawyer" in 1973 and "Huckleberry Finn" a year later.
After operating out of Peoria, Ill., for several years and later in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Belle foundered in debt until Bob Kalhagen of Madison bought it for $500,000 in 1994. He and his wife operated it as an excursion business out of La Crosse from 1995 to 2008, including routes between Prairie du Chien and Winona.
A lagging economy forced Kalhagen, too, to drop anchor on the business in 2008, mooring the Belle in an isolated spot on French Island until Desmond’s group rescued it.
The 98-gross-ton vessel will be used in part as a floating classroom to maintain its nonprofit status, as well as probably hosting excursions and being available for special events such as weddings and other celebrations.
A bit of advice to passengers when the boat is out on Old Man River: Don’t stand next to the calliope pipes. Blomquist told visitors the other day to cover their ears before he plunked a few keys in a short burst for a demonstration.
Like in the old days, when folks flocked to the river to meet the boats at the sounds, it won’t be long until the Belle’s calliope will beckon people to the banks again.
The Belle is getting a new set of pipes to match her fit new body.