March 25 was a big day for North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays. He was accepting the title to the Razorback submarine after more than two years of negotiations when he received a telephone call informing him that the secretary of the Navy had selected North Little Rock to receive the Hoga, a Navy tugboat that is the last surviving vessel from the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Razorback was one of the two remaining submarines on hand for the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. So with the addition of the Hoga, Hays suddenly had what he calls the "alpha and omega" of World War II naval craft - participants in the beginning and end of America's greatest military conflict.
This good fortune has prompted a grand vision for a $10 million to $15 million inland maritime museum that would be the first of its kind. An engineering firm has drafted a design, and Hays says the 100,000-square-foot facility could include an international trade center as well as exhibits highlighting North Little Rock's presence on the Trail of Tears. But like a sweepstakes winner who can't get the brand-new sleeper sofa through the front door, Hays is discovering that his luck presents new challenges.
"It's a blessing and a curse," Hays says of landing both the Razorback and the Hoga. "I'm in the black to get one vessel, but I'm in the red to get two."
Making an armada
The Razorback was due to make its long-awaited arrival in North Little Rock next week after a 7,000-mile voyage from Turkey, but low water levels on the Arkansas River are impeding its passage, and it is stalled indefinitely in Rosedale, Miss. When it finally completes its journey, the submarine will be feted at a major ceremony.
When the process of obtaining the Razorback began, Hays anticipated spending only a minimal amount of public money. He obtained $400,000 from Stephens, Inc., and raised another $100,000 in private funds on top of that. Volunteers - mostly submarine veterans - did the work to construct barges where restoration work will take place, and local companies like Union Pacific donated equipment and specialized labor.
Nevertheless, the city has had to ante up money to cover other costs, including $37,500 to preserve the submarine while it was in Turkey, and an unspecified amount to prepare and moor the barges. Expenses associated with the project are now running well over the original $500,000 budget, and Hays this week received permission from the City Council to tap up to $200,000 available through the riverfront development fund.
Hays does not know exactly when the Razorback will be ready for public viewing, but it will surely be shipshape before the Hoga, which is ironic because the mayor began trying to get the tugboat two years before he heard about the submarine.
U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder first called the Hoga to Hays' attention.
"Two things struck me about it," Snyder said. "First, it's an incredible piece of history that was mothballed and looking for someone to adopt it. Second, it was small enough that it could work in the Arkansas River as a monument to the Navy and World War II."
North Little Rock's formal application for the Hoga was filed in December 2001. Two months later, an informal association of submarine veterans approached Hays about acquiring the Razorback (named not for the University of Arkansas mascot but a type of whale). Their main goal was to return the submarine to the U.S. and they thought North Little Rock might be interested because of the Razorback name and the Hoga effort.
While Hays is glad that North Little Rock will have the Hoga, he still does not know when it will arrive, or how much it will cost to get it here and restore it. But that has not prevented him from looking into the possibility of obtaining the Arkansas, a Confederate ironclad that saw action at the Civil War battle of Vicksburg. Like the Razorback and the Hoga, the Arkansas would likely require some expensive retrieval and restoration work; it has been resting at the bottom of the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge for the last 140 years.
A see-worthy museum?
"Originally we were just going to have a nice place for the Hoga," Hays said of his initial plans for the riverfront area due south of Alltel Arena. "After we got the Razorback, we thought something more would be appropriate."
The motivation to do more has translated into plans for the maritime museum. Thompson Engineering of Mobile has drawn an exterior view of the building, which would be located on Riverfront Drive and cantilever into Riverfront Park in order to avoid blocking the view of the Little Rock skyline from Alltel Arena. Hays already has received permission from state highway officials to build over Riverfront Drive, and the North Little Rock facilities board approved his request to share an Alltel Arena parking lot.
However, he has promised not to ask Pulaski County or the city facilities board for money, so he needs to find a way to raise construction costs and an operating budget.
"I have not started on the building money," Hays notes. "I'm in the hole to get what I need to bring both vessels here."
Before the fund-raising starts, Hays hopes to refine the concept for the museum. He likes the idea of concentrating on inland maritime history, because the country's first transportation corridors were waterways, and the first Arkansas settlers arrived via river.
Some other inland states have similar elements of Hays' grand vision. For instance, the Marlin submarine is on display as a memorial at the Greater Omaha Marina in Nebraska. And Oklahoma has a museum dedicated to the history of the Arkansas River at the Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa. But only coastal areas have established serious maritime museums with historic naval vessels.
That means Arkansas could have a unique attraction. It will come down to whether Hays can find the money to bring his dream out of dry dock.
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