James Whalen sinks

·7 min read

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — The James Whalen tug had more visitors than ever Sunday, as she remained almost completely submerged in the Kaministiquia River (Kam River) after taking on water in heavy rains this past weekend.

In its heyday, the tug played a critical role for the shipping industry by being the precursor for opening up the harbour prior to the Alexander Henry and eventually the Samuel Risley.

“It is a tug but they didn’t have icebreakers back in the day, so they were using the James Whalen to open up the Kam River out to the lake to start the shipping season,” said Charlie Brown, president of the Lakehead Transportation Museum Society.

Brown says the tug has many connections to the Alexander Henry which is the star of the developing historical transportation museum at the Thunder Bay Harbour.

“The Alexander Henry spent its entire working life opening up the harbour here and was such an iconic vessel. Prior to that it was the James Whalen (that did the work),” he said.

“We wanted to restore (the Whalen) and bring it back and then open it up. We were looking at using it as a space for some of our shipwreck displays, and meeting facilities and things like that. I think for us it would have been a real feather in our cap and something that would have really enhanced our overall operation, which in turn enhances tourism for the city. So it’s unfortunate any efforts to relocate the tug to the museum site weren’t put forward.”

Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay, says it’s disappointing anytime part of our community heritage is damaged or potentially lost.

“There are 15 per cent of travellers who look for historical attractions, specifically when they do travel to a new place, so the transportation museum does cater to a certain segment of the visitor market for sure,” he said.

“But the key is really how the (attraction) is interpretive and is accessible to the public. The James Whalen doesn’t do much good as a tourism attraction the way it has been sitting for the last number of years. But if it could go over to a larger organization that could encompass it and bring it in under an umbrella of a larger range of attractions then that is something that makes it more easily accessible and easy to interpret for our visitors as well . . . and then that in itself increases the tourism value.”

This March, Brown and his group presented a five-year strategic plan to city council to take over James Whalen. On April 15, they approached the “reformed” waterfront development committee, and proposed an extension on their property with plans to bring over the James Whalen.

“The committee sent it back to administration and we’ve been sitting waiting for the report back from them, which is supposed to come by the end of May,” said Brown.

“We were hoping that we would get a positive referral out of the city and then we would look at starting the process of putting the plan together to bring the Whalen over — so now that it’s sitting on the bottom of the Kam River, I guess that’s going to be kind of difficult.”

Original plans to dock the James Whalen behind the Alexander Henry were cancelled because the city needed the available room for the developing cruise ship dock. Brown and his committee developed another plan to bring the tug to the front of the Alexander Henry but dredging needed to be done first.

“We asked the city over a year ago that what we needed to accomplish that goal was an extension on our property down to the waterline and they said, ‘no,’ because they wanted to push the trail system along the fence line where we’ve got the buses, and that would split our property,” he said. “So we got stymied there and then finally the waterfront development committee came back (to us) and we’ve been waiting for the first opportunity for that first public meeting. So that’s unfortunate but I guess timing is everything.”

Had the tug been part of the museum installation, she would sit in about a foot of water where Brown says, “basically it would be a dry land option so it would never sink again.”

He described the area at the end of the dock where the shore slopes down to the lake.

“Right in front of the Alexander Henry, and right now because the lake is down about two feet, it’s all dry land. We proposed to the city that we would dredge that area and then basically float it in and backfill it and that would be the end of it. (The tug) would just sit there in maybe a foot of water so technically it would never be able to sink again.”

According to Cory Halvorsen, manager of parks and open spaces with the city, the process to transfer the James Whalen tug to the transportation museum is not a cut and dry process.

“It was more about the process of the land use agreements down at Pool Six where (Brown) would require an extension to what was currently authorized,” said Halvorsen. “It wasn’t just that we hadn’t gotten back to him. It was that we weren’t proceeding in that direction right now.

“It involves more than the parks (department) as well.”

Halvorsen said the city was monitoring the tugboat and as of Saturday night, she was still afloat and intact. He speculates that a combination of the rainfall events and whatever leaks they were managing that developed through last year caused the tug to fill with water and pull away from her mooring. The tug began taking on water early in April, 2021 and began to list to the side.

City crews established a secure mooring and organized the pumping out of the water but the pump was removed to protect it from ice over the winter with plans to return it to the vessel when the ice melted on the river.

“We did have a pump system installed last year to sort of manage the water levels because we couldn’t see where the water had come from originally, “ he said.

“We got a pump installed and it didn’t appear to pump a lot. We had an actual meter on it that would let us know the duration of how often and how many times or hours the pump was running. It didn’t appear to be running all that much. But as we went into the winter with the freeze up, we had to take the pump out so that it wouldn’t be damaged. And we were waiting to reinstall that pump as soon as we possibly could. The last time we checked it was still frozen and we couldn’t install it.”

Halvorsen says there are lots of variables at the site over the winter, especially with the cold temperatures. Crews continued to monitor the tug and noticed that the vessel was shifting positions through the winter even though it was entirely frozen.

“It was the ice itself that appeared to be manipulating it a bit so it looked like it was leaning but it was still attached,” he said.

“It’s very possible that even the amount of ice that it dealt with through the winter either caused more damage to create leaks or maybe even put a strain on the moorings, because right now it’s completely detached from (the dock). Nobody observed it when it changed position.”

For now, Gary Dawson and his tug the Glenada has installed floating booms around the submerged vessel. There is no oil or fuel on board so there are no environmental hazards.

Halvorsen says they are looking at options for how to move the vessel from its current state and where it should be moved to.

“Knowing the kind of issues we’re dealing with it taking on water, I do not believe we’re considering leaving it where it is at this point,” he said. “It needs to obviously go somewhere, either for repairs or to a temporary or permanent location that doesn’t require it to be in the water.”

He added, the focus this week is to sort out the priorities and options on how to move the tug.

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal

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