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A Tale of Two Holidays: Experiences on the Dredge Thompson

For 68 years, the Thompson, a Corps of Engineers' dredge whose mission is to maintain the navigation channel on inland rivers, has been a stage for the stories of people working and living together on one of the world's greatest rivers. The dredge is part of the fleet based in Fountain City, Wisconsin and operated by the St. Paul District.
The crew's response on two holidays, 64 years apart, shows how unpredictable life on the Mississippi River can be.

Armistice Day in November, 1940, began with blue sky and temperatures in the 50s.

Like it, Veterans Day 2004 began with clear sky and moderate temperatures, which continued through the following morning as the Thompson cleared the river channel for navigation.

But these two holidays ended much differently.

Sixty four years earlier, an abrupt change in the weather, later called the Armistice Day Storm, surprised residents in the region.

Response to this storm was a classic example of the Thompson crew and equipment rising to the occasion, working under adverse weather conditions and doing what it takes to get the job done.

The temperatures rapidly dropped to freezing, 70-mph winds raked the region and two feet of snow blanketed the ground by the time the storm ended the following day.

In 1940, the Dredge William A. Thompson had completed its fourth dredging season and was safely back in the Fountain City, Wisconsin boatyards when the deadly storm hit.
The sudden high winds, six-foot waves on the river, blizzard conditions and freshly forming ice stranded hundreds of duck hunters, with their small skiffs and outboard motors, on islands up and down the river.

Members of the Thompson crew, including Clarence Thompson, the first captain of the dredge (no relation to William A. Thompson), and Allen Fiedler, the pilot of the dredge, and other Corps' employees stationed at the boatyards, instinctively knew what had to be done as they fired up the dredge tenders the next day and set out to find their friends, neighbors and possibly co-workers. Search planes, circling overhead, guided the dredge's steel support boats and their operators to the hunters. Trip after trip, they brought stranded hunters to shore.

The Thompson is a boat, a dredge, a hotel and restaurant, power plant, repair shop and construction site, all rolled into one.

It is a combination that makes for fascinating human experiences. For the Thompson crew, it is more than a job, it is their home, it becomes their lifestyle.

That may account for the pride of ownership and sense of duty that is obvious as the crew goes about routine business or a rapid response to a channel closure.

Like Thanksgiving 1980, when crew members left deer stands and family dinners to fire up the Thompson from winter hibernation and mobilized the dredge in a snowstorm to a channel closure at Grand Encampment on the Mississippi River.

The channel clearing prevented the last tows of the year from spending the winter frozen in the Upper Mississippi River.

Over the years, dredge employees have worked away from family and friends during weekends, holidays, Fathers' Days, Mothers' Days, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and many other special days.

But family is not always that far away, as the work force has included brothers, father and son, grandfather and grandson, uncle and nephew, cousins, mother and son and spouses.

Dredging jobs can be in a crew member's backyard or a thousand-plus miles from their land based home.
The Thompson has worked the major navigable rivers of the upper Midwest; the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Memphis, the St. Croix, Illinois, Missouri, Kaskaskia and Ohio rivers.

Maintaining the channel means the crews have an ongoing relationship with the quirks of the river and a close attachment of the Corps' navigation mission.
The crew moves and shapes sand that only minutes earlier was a potential obstacle for safe movement of commercial barges. They disconnect the pipeline, moving it out of the path of an appreciative towboat that shares information on other locations of concern as it eases past the big dredge boat.

From the still heat and humidity of a July evening to the freezing ice-covered decks on a November day, the Thompson works on.

When not actively dredging, the crew sets up the job, adds floating line, moves anchors, extends shore-pipe, prepares a placement site, cleans the pump or assembles the tow so that 5,000-tons of dredge and floating equipment can safely move to the next job.

The Thompson has survived years past its projected life span largely, due to the maintenance and care it has received.

The crew has adapted the Thompson to changing times, especially environmental responsiveness.

In the mid-1970s, the pumping distance of the Thompson was extended from 1,700 feet to more than 7,000 feet with additional pipeline and two booster pumps. This allows targeted placement of the dredged material at environmentally approved sites.

Sixty-eight dredging seasons and 125 million cubic yards later, modern technology and supplemental heavy equipment are a routine part of the operation, as the dredge completes the final job just 25 miles upstream from its very first job site.

Large bulldozers, a backhoe, plastic pipeline and drop structures are all used to contain material on land and prevent the sand from entering valuable backwaters. A drop structure contains dredged material on land while allowing water to drain back to the river. Lighting allows round-the-clock operations and proper placement of dredged material.

The Thompson now uses equipment, such as satellite positioning and electronic maps, likely never imagined during its first job down-river of Lansing, Iowa, in June 1937.

Clearing the navigation channel on the Mississippi River on Veterans Day 2004 is not the last job of the season. It's the last job for the dredge - ever.

With the arrival of the Dredge Goetz in 2005, the Thompson's role will be reduced to providing a home for the crew until the Quarters barge Taggatz is funded and delivered.

In the unpredictable world of channel maintenance, the work near Brownsville, Minnesota, Head of Raft Channel to be specific, is already the Thompson's second final job.
The next to last job was completed earlier in the week, 75 miles upstream at Reads Landing, Minnesota, that is until a towboat grounding prompted yet another "final" job. This is a familiar scenario that the Thompson and its able crew respond to in routine fashion.

Clearing Raft Channel is only the final dredging job for the Thompson but not its final call.

The 270-foot dredge boat will be transformed into a museum exhibit at Winona, Minnesota, seven river miles from the Fountain City boatyards. The exhibit will serve to educate the public and future generations about the river and the important role the Thompson has played in river lore.

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