Giant Pelican mascot is playing lead role in dam removal, river restoration drama

When the “World’s Largest Pelican” was created as an iconic riverside attraction in 1957, nobody could have predicted that “Pelican Pete” would become a dramatic character in a major dam removal and environmental restoration of the Pelican River. 

Note the cracked plaster, and open gaps, on the famous Pelican Pete statue—which will be completely renovated as part of the dam removal and river restoration project in Pelican Rapids. The “World’s Largest Pelican” will also be relocated to the opposite side of the river from its present perch.

How, when, and where to move him—and how to repair the crumbling, deteriorating “structure”—has become an Odyssey of Viking-mythological proportions. 

Pelican Pete needs to migrate from his perch on the north side of the river, to clear the way for dam removal and river restoration. Then, he needs to return—to a new platform on the south side, when the heavy machinery has completed the demolition process. 

Pelican Pete has been the focus of attention for folks from city hall, the DNR, the legislature, and the state historical preservation agency—which is especially concerned about Pete’s well-being. 

To put it simply: The World’s Largest Pelican is not only a local visual feature: He’s historic. 

Pete’s future, and the dam removal, were discussed at length July 26 by the city council.

“We have decided that it is best, because of the delicate nature of Pete as he sits today, that we need to relocate Pete to a safe location,” said Wes Keller, Houston Engineering, which is the firm contracting with the state on the river restoration project. 

Moving a giant pelican isn’t your routine transport job 

Hauling a 15.5-foot-tall statue isn’t your normal U-Haul job. Repairing plaster and re-painting a giant pelican may not be a Sistine Chapel undertaking—but certainly beyond the scope of the average home interior decorator.

“We need…to get him away from the work at the dam…we’d like to put him indoors,” said Don Solga, city administrator. “But we don’t have a place. He’s too tall.” 

“Pelican Pete” under construction in 1957.

He’s also heavy. Damn heavy. His actual weight seems to be lost to history, unless somebody steps forward with an estimate from 1957. He hasn’t moved an inch since then, so weight hasn’t been a topic of discussion.

Engineer Keller estimated that the removal job could be “very expensive.” Under the present deal with the DNR, the state will underwrite the cost of moving and relocating the pelican. The city and community are responsible for the restoration—clean-up, patching with new plaster, and a new surface coating. 

“He’s in rough shape,” said Keller. 

Moving will require specialized gear, no doubt. The general timeline aims at Pete’s removal by mid-October. Demolition of the dam, dredging, and infrastructure for the pedestrian bridge that will replace the dam walkway will commence not long after. Most of the activity will be after freeze-up, when the hardened soil will support heavy equipment with the least amount of surface disruption. 

Historic preservation specialists to play role in Pelican Pete

This computer-generated graphic illustrates a simulated view with the Pelican Rapids dam removed and replaced with a “rock arch rapids” design. Comparable to modifications at Dunton Locks, Detroit Lakes; Barnesville; and dozens of sites on the Red River, the re-introduction of rapids creates fast water interspersed with pools. Note, Pelican Pete, on the south side of the river.
A “pre-Pete” view of Pelican dam site, probably 1940s.

The DNR, Houston, and Pelican Rapids will be discussing the project with specialists in historic preservation, including the firm that performed restoration work on Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, (by many accounts, one of the most photographed roadside attractions of its kind in the entire U.S.)

The most likely scenario is that Pete will be moved to a safe outdoor location, with “Fort Knox” security fencing to fend off vandals. He’ll stand there for the winter and spring, because there is concern that moving and storing him in a prone position could further damage the plaster and iron skeleton. 

Another concern is Pelican Pete’s webbed feet—which could be susceptible to damage when dislodged and lifted from the present concrete platform. 

A new base and platform, on the opposite side of the river, will be constructed as part of the dam-river restoration project. Pete will be moved back once the project is done, ideally by summer of 2023—but there are numerous factors that could delay Pete from his final resting place.

The Pelican is 85.5 miles long from the Otter Tail confluence to its headwaters.
Removals of Elizabeth, Pelican Rapids, and Buck’s Mill dams would connect it all.

Most of the preservation and restoration will likely occur on-site, after Pete returns. By doing plaster and finish work on-site, it eliminates the danger of a face-lifted Pete being damaged in transport or installation. 

Goal of dam removal, river restoration is bigger than Pelican Pete himself 

 The Pelican Pete saga aside, the Pelican city dam removal and river restoration project is actually bigger than the “World’s Largest Pelican.” 

Combined with pending restoration projects at Buck’s Mill, west of Detroit Lakes, and the Elizabeth dam, the removal of the Pelican city dam would open up 85 miles of waterway to species movement and free-flowing river. Taking into consideration the entire Pelican River watershed, the river restoration will have a direct impact on nearly 15,000 acres of lakes. 

There are 53 fish species in the Pelican River watershed, 14 of which are not found above the Pelican city dam—because of the obstruction of passage. But it is not all about fish, as there are dozens of other aquatic species which are restricted from up or downstream flow. 

So, the movement of Pelican Pete will improve the free movement of fish and other species—for generations, centuries, to come. 

• Official advertisement for bids for the Pelican Pete project appears in public notices.