Arkansas maritime museum could be home to ships from start, end of WWII


NORTH LITTLE ROCK — A small maritime museum on the banks of the Arkansas River, which has been visited by more than 200,000 people since it opened nine years ago, will be expanding soon in several directions.

The Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, home to the USS Razorback, a submarine that was in Tokyo Bay in September 1945 when the Japanese surrendered, and a collection of Naval and other military memorabilia, is being refurbished to house items from the recently closed Arkansas River Historical Society Museum at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Catoosa, Okla.

Museum officials also are hoping that the facility will soon be home to the USS Hoga, a harbor tugboat which was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and helped move several battleships out of harm’s way from Japanese fighters.

With the addition of the Hoga, the North Little Rock museum would be one of only two museums to have World War II-era ships that saw action at the beginning of the war and at the end. The other is in Honolulu.

The city of North Little Rock acquired the USS Razorback in 2004 and it, along with the maritime museum, opened to the public in 2005.

“This will be the only place in the continental United States that will have ships that bookend World II,” said Michael Hopper, curator of the museum.

About 200,000 people have visited the museum, said Steve Owen, a member of the Save the Hoga Committee. “We’ve had people from 77 different countries come and visit the maritime museum,” he said.

In the past three years, more than 300 different school groups also have toured the museum and submarine, Owen said, adding that both are important to the city and state.

“It’s of historical significance for two reasons, remembering those who fought to keep our country free, but also from an educational standpoint,” Owen said. “A lot of times when you’re teaching kids about history, it’s one thing to teach in a classroom, but when they can actually get out and touch, see and feel history it brings it to life.”

A Saturday fundraiser to help cover the $195,000 cost of having the Hoga transported from northern California was canceled because of the winter storm. The fundraiser was scheduled for Saturday to coincide with the Jimmy Buffett concert at the Verizon Arena, which also was canceled. Saturday was also the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Owen said the fundraiser will be rescheduled when the weather is a warmer, possibly in March, or when the Buffett concert is rescheduled, whichever is sooner.

Owen said the nonprofit group that operates the museum is about $50,000 short of covering the cost of getting the Hoga moved by ship. The outside of the tug was recently refurbished at Mare Island Shipyard in Vallejo, just north of San Francisco.

“The entire bottom was redone, and from the water line up to the mast,” Owen said. “It looks close to the way it looked in 1941 during the attack (on Pearl Harbor) as you can get.”

The refurbishing of the tug cost about $250,000, about $150,000 of which was in-kind work done by U.S. Navy veterans who volunteered to help restore the vessel, Owen said. The rest was paid for with donations.

Despite the cancellation of the fundraiser, Owen said plans are still in place for the Hoga to be loaded onto an ocean-going transportation barge sometime in late January or early February and arrive in New Orleans in March.

“It will probably stay in New Orleans for a couple of weeks for a little more work, then we’ll have to just wait for the right barge company to bring it up the Mississippi,” he said.

He said tug could arrive at the North Little Rock museum sometime in March or April.

Owen said last week there is enough interest in bring the Hoga to North Little Rock that he expects additional donation within the next few weeks to cover the transportation costs. He said money raised by the fundraiser would be used to for maintenance costs of the tug once it arrives.

Owen said the Hoga still has a 9-foot-long dent on the starboard bow which occurred when it was pushing the USS Nevada out to sea during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After WW II, the Hoga spent 40 years as an Oakland, Calif., fire boat before it was mothballed by the U.S. Navy, Owen said, adding that the tugboat has been designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Hopper said the Hoga was the original World War II vessel that former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays tried to bring to Arkansas.The Navy awarded ownership of the Hoga to the city in 2005, about three years after Hays began trying to acquire it. Because of the Hoga’s frail condition, however, the cost of getting the boat transported has been an obstacle.

Hopper said Wednesday the items from Arkansas River Historical Society Museum are mainly papers and other documents collected by people who were involved in the initial planning and construction of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which stretches from northeastern Oklahoma through Arkansas to the Mississippi River.

“We have 255 document boxes … that are full of documents,” he said. “Right now we’re going through all those documents trying to get a handle on what we have.”

Some of the artifacts include some of the shovels that used in groundbreaking ceremonies at some of the lock and dam sites, as well as samples of commodities that are shipped up and down the Arkansas River.

Hopper said the museum is now closed and will reopen March 1. The USS Razorback, however, is still open for tours.