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Hard-luck tug sinks in Duluth harbor

David Nelson (pictured today), Hobart Finn's business partner in a trucking firm, arrived on the scene, where he found water gushing into the hull of the Essayons on Monday. (Bob King /

DULUTH - Hobart Finn's dream of turning an 85-foot tugboat into Duluth's first floating bed and breakfast may finally be sunk for good.

On Monday afternoon, the 91-year-old Essayons began to take on water.

Finn was out of town, but David Nelson, his business partner in a trucking firm, Julie's Big Trucks, received word the boat appeared to be sitting unusually low in the water. When he arrived on the scene, he found water rising inside the vessel's hull.

Nelson quickly rounded up a few pumps and rushed to the tugboat's aid along with Brian Rinker, a friend and occasional employee of Finn. Despite their efforts, however, the pumps could not keep pace with the rising water.

At about 3 p.m. Monday the Essayons began to go down. Nelson said the vessel's descent probably took about 30 seconds.

"Water began pouring in through the front portals. The bow tipped down. The boat listed to portside. The bow hit bottom, and then the stern followed," he said.

The tug now rests in about 20 feet of water, with only its smokestack and part of its cabin still protruding from the harbor. The Essayons sank in the same spot where it had long been moored at a dock behind the Duluth Timber Co.

Nelson said he's not sure how badly compromised the hull of the vessel is or how it was damaged, but he theorized: "That strong northeaster we had and the ice may just have been too much for her."

Finn bought the boat from Zenith Dredge in 1994, but it was no longer a working vessel. Zenith donated the tug's original steam engine to the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center where it remains on display in Duluth.

Originally, the vessel was commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operated it until the 1950s.

The boat drew its name from the French verb essayer, meaning to try.

But try as he may, Finn was unsuccessful in his efforts to transform the Essayons into a bed and breakfast. At times, he seemed close to achieving the dream.

Finn made arrangements with the Duluth Economic Development Authority to lease a mooring spot at Duluth's Slip No. 2, next to Bayfront Festival Park in 2004, anticipating an imminent opening.

But that summer, the tug fell victim to an attack by vandals who broke into the boat and caused about $10,000 in damage. It was the second time the Essayons had been attacked. In 1997, the tug sustained $10,000 to $15,000 in damage at the hands of three 11- to 12-year-old vandals who lit several fires aboard the boat, spray-painted the interior and broke windows.

In 2007, the vessel survived a fire at Finn's neighboring business -- True North Cedar, a manufacturer of cedar shakes and other building materials. At the time, Finn said he still hoped to open the tug as a bed and breakfast, but the fire set back those plans.

"Hobart poured years of work into this boat," Nelson said as he helped position a boom around the sunken Essayons today. Booms and oil blotter are being used to contain and block the spread of oil or other pollutants from the vessel. Nelson said efforts to raise the boat will need to wait until the water is free of ice.

Nelson said Finn was traveling outside the state today and was not reachable by telephone.