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DLA lays historic Great Lakes watercraft to rest

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services Public Affairs

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After 75 years of service, the floating crane derrick “Paul Bunyan” departed the Soo Locks in northern Michigan under its own power in late December to bravely face dismantlement under a Defense Logistics Agency scrap sales contract.

The custom barge, originally fabricated in Muskegon, Michigan, at a cost of over $1 million when commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1940s, boasted a demonstrated lift capability of more than 300 tons. Operators used the 150-foot long, 444-ton brute to pluck tugboats out of the St. Marys River and lug around 90,000 pound “stop logs” that allow dry docking and winterization of the Soo Locks canals.  

A crane ship lifts bars.
The crane barge Paul Bunyan handles "stop logs" at the Soo Locks in the winter of 2015. The locks allow ships to bypass rapids in the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
A crane ship lifts bars.
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The crane barge Paul Bunyan handles "stop logs" at the Soo Locks in the winter of 2015. The locks allow ships to bypass rapids in the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Photo By: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
VIRIN: 150115-D-D0441-1234

The DLA Disposition Services team from the agency’s field site in Sparta, Wisconsin, had recently handled disposal of Army Corps’ forklifts, all-terrain vehicles, and cranes from the Soo Locks. Property Disposal Specialist Brandon Roderick said he occasionally made the 8-hour drive to the Michigan-Ontario border twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie to assist, but never for a behemoth like the Paul Bunyan.

Roderick said the crane barge was still operational, and a tugboat in dry dock tagged for disposal could have also been made seaworthy after refurbishment. With still-usable property, DLA’s priority is always to try and find a reuse, transfer or donation recipient to extend the life of equipment and generate maximum return on taxpayer investment. In the case of the Paul Bunyan, however, Roderick said the cost of transporting the barge to potential reuse customers “would have been astronomical,” including a $500,000 cost estimate for towing it to an interested recipient located at the southwest tip of Lake Michigan, near Chicago.

With potential transfer or donation destinations ruled out, Property Disposal Specialists Brandon Bucklin and Todd Koleski teamed up to help offer the vessels for removal under public scrap sales contracts that would potentially recoup some Defense Department funds and – more importantly – help the Army Corps of Engineers avoid any costs related to their disposal and destruction.

A tugboat in dry storage on a beach.
The tugboat Fairchild sits in dry dock at the Soo Locks in northern Michigan. The tug was recently sold for scrap, returning $10,000 to DOD.
A tugboat in dry storage on a beach.
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The tugboat Fairchild sits in dry dock at the Soo Locks in northern Michigan. The tug was recently sold for scrap, returning $10,000 to DOD.
Photo By: Brandon Roderick
VIRIN: 200325-D-D0441-1235

After a lengthy process, the 45-foot tugboat “Fairchild” was finally sold for $10,000 and the Paul Bunyan fetched just over $43,000. Both vessels were awarded to nearby firms for dismantling, and the bid winners were conditionally granted permission to “cannibalize” and resell usable items. On December 28, 2020, the Paul Bunyan hoisted the Fairchild aboard and together, they sailed into retirement.

The St. Marys River travels 75 miles from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, falling 23 feet along its journey. The first Soo Locks opened in 1855 to allow massive freight ships to bypass a series of rapids that lie just below Lake Superior. As many as 10,000 ships pass through the locks each year, carrying an estimated 86 million tons of cargo after the annual winter closures brought on by ice formation. The first locks were administered by the State of Michigan until 1881, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gained jurisdiction and has operated the locks ever since. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.