By Justin Franz, 8-02-12
||Caption: Loggers pushed fresh-cut timber into the water during the early 20th century. Some of the logs sank in Flathead Lake. | Photo courtesy of Darris Flanagan
More than a century ago roughneck loggers cut massive trees and floated the bounty to Somers Bay on Flathead Lake. It was a job that took “pure muscle and hard work,” according to Bigfork diver Jay Barth.
Now in 2012, Barth and Moscow, Idaho-based Northwest Management Inc. are looking for those same logs as part of the Flathead Lake Historic Timber project. Since 2010, Barth and a group of divers have recovered more than 1,500 logs that have been sitting at the bottom of the lake for nearly a century. Once the logs are recovered, the wood is made into lumber and sold for niche projects.
“It’s a specialty market and it’s geared toward high-end builders,” said Brian Niles of Outlaw Partners, which does marketing for the project. “It’s for people who want to have a piece of Montana history.”
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, logs were sent to Somers and taken out of the lake by the sawmill and made into railroad ties for the Great Northern Railway. However, many logs sank in the process and have sat on the lake bottom ever since. Preserved by icy cold water for nearly a century, the old growth trees have been untouched and create a high-quality lumber with unique colors and hues. The wood can be used on anything from flooring to cabinetry.
Many of the logs at the bottom of Flathead Lake are marked with a ‘N’ inside a circle and those were designated for the railway. Today, the logs are owned by the DeVoe family, one of the final owners of the mill. In 2007, the family contacted Northwest Management about recovering and selling the forgotten logs. President and CEO Vincent Corrao said digging up old logs from rivers and lakes is not a new process, but this is the first time his firm has recovered logs.
To extract the logs from the water, the firm hired a group of divers. Barth said he had heard that there were logs at the bottom of Flathead, but never looked. He said recovering the old trees is not easy, although it is rewarding.
“The cool thing about Somers Bay is it’s so beautiful, but the water can be very cold and run-off can make visibility very limited,” he said. “It’s like going into a dark room and then trying to go work.”
Using a metal pipe to wrap rope around the log, it is then dragged out of the dirt and floated to shore behind a pontoon boat. Because the process kicks up sediment, Northwest Management’s hydrologist Mark Corrao has been heavily involved with the project, taking water samples whenever logs are being removed. Most of the time, logs are dug up and taken to shore during the late fall and winter, in hopes of avoiding the busy summer season on the lake. Mark said so far the operation has not harmed the water.
He said so many logs sank during the first part of the 20th century, his company will be busy for a long time recovering them.
“There’s enough wood down there to keep us busy for 10 years,” he said. “In some places you’ll find a log every three feet and other places you’ll find them stacked like pick-up sticks.”
The Hunts Timber warehouse in St. Ignatius, where much of the timber from Flathead Lake is processed. Photo courtesy of Stephen Hunt
Many of the logs are 16 feet long and anywhere from 8 inches to 38 inches wide. Vincent said the trees were anywhere from 250 to 300 years old when cut, so there is no difference between an old growth tree cut now and one pulled from the water. That’s a major selling point for the wood, which fetches anywhere from $5 to $8 a foot when sold. But all involved said the history plays into the marketing as well.
“The logs were first acquired to build the railroad west, which opened the West, so there’s a bit of history there,” Vincent said. “Montanans (especially) see the appeal in the history.”
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