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SS Meteor takes first step toward national landmark designation

The whaleback ship SS Meteor is a museum ship at Barker's Island in Superior. (2015 file / News Tribune)

Officials with Superior Public Museums have upped the significance of the city's whaleback ship, the SS Meteor. On Friday, the State Historic Preservation Review Committee approved an amendment to the Meteor's National Register of Historic Places listing, changing the site from state to national significance.

Museum officials hope the ship eventually will be formally recognized as a national historic landmark.

Sara Blanck, executive director of Superior Public Museums, said this new bump in significance is a "baby step" toward becoming a landmark. The path to that designation, however, could take up to seven years.

"It's a slow process, but we're optimistic," she said. "This is something that could happen, and it would be a big deal if it did."

The Superior-built Meteor, launched in 1896 and now serving as a museum ship, is the only surviving whaleback ship above water in the nation, according to Blanck. She said the Meteor is already listed on the state and national registers of historic places.

The Meteor "plays a part in the evolution of shipbuilding. Back when they built the whaleback in the 1890s, they didn't yet know how to build ships like they do today. They hadn't quite figured out that engineering, and our whaleback is a part of that evolution," Blanck said.

Friday's approval upgraded the importance of the site and amended its boundaries so only the Meteor and its anchor were included, not parts of Barker's Island itself.

Blanck said the ship's new status is important because they would like to see the ship designated as a national historic landmark at the federal level. The National Park Service determines which sites are designated as national historic landmarks based on criteria that include the site's role in the development of the nation, Blanck said.

"Because of the ship's role in the development of the iron ore trade and the evolution of shipping, we believe that it meets the criteria to become a national historic landmark," she said.

To even be considered for the designation, however, the whaleback first had to be determined to be of national significance by the state. With that hurdle cleared, Blanck plans to craft a request for permission to apply to add "national landmark" to the Meteor's list of achievements. She said it could take up to two years for a response to the permission to apply, and up to five additional years to be listed if the answer is "yes."

If the SS Meteor does receive designation as a national historic landmark, it would be the first property listed as such in northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin landmarks that have been named national historic landmarks include Taliesin in Spring Green, Milwaukee's Pabst Theater, Ringling Brothers Circus winter quarters in Baraboo and the State Capitol in Madison.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news. The News Tribune and Superior Telegram contributed to this report. Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news.

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