- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - Around the turn of the 20th century, as early loggers put their sweat and blood into the harvest of timber and the Great Northern Railroad began winding its way west - supported by the timber industry - the Somers Sawmill was established along Flathead Lake in Montana.

The family-owned mill experienced a windfall from the burgeoning railway, which ordered railroad ties created from logs floated down the Flathead or Swan rivers to the lake that fed its saws.

Over the years, thousands of larch and pine logs sank, spending a century in the silt and mud on the lake bottom.

Until now.

After a battle between the family who owned Somers Sawmill and the State of Montana over which party the logs belonged to, Moscow’s Northwest Management Inc. was hired by the victorious DeVoe family to find and recover the logs, which bear the Great Northern brand - a circle with an N in it.

“The DeVoe family hired us initially to do permitting to recover logs that had sunk in the lake after floating down the Flathead River around the turn of the century,” project manager Mark Corrao said. “The family had kept the records so they knew how many logs they essentially paid for and never got.”

While more than 100 years submerged would be detrimental to many things, not so for timber, which is essentially preserved by the cold lake-bottom water and lack of oxygen. They are also made, some say, more attractive by their stay beneath the waves, where they are slowly stained shades of black, green, violet, peach, charcoal and blue by the silt and minerals surrounding them.

If a rainbow of color isn’t enough to make this lost-and-found timber distinctive, the sheer size and age of it must be - at least to those who dive for it.

“We have one that’s 38 inches in diameter, 392 years old with a 1924 stamp on it,” Corrao said. “Somewhere in the 1530s it started growing.”

While the job began with permitting and water sampling, before long Northwest Management was tasked with raising the sunken treasures - and doing so in an environmentally friendly manner.

The beginning of the process found a great amount of resistance from environmental agencies that were concerned about how the disruption of sediment from the lake bottom would affect fish and other wildlife.

“We did all of these tests and found there was no harmful sediments, and the sediment settled quickly,” Cancroft said.

Also, he said, the logs were not a natural part of Flathead Lake.

Log ponds in themselves are known not to be environmentally friendly, as the tannic acid leaching from the logs can raise the water’s pH, so carefully extracting the sunken logs can be beneficial for bodies of water, if done correctly.

“We do it all by hand,” Corrao said, using diving ropes and a pontoon boat. “We literally hand line them to the surface, tie them off on the boat and as you move the boat forward the log swings up under the boat, you put a chain under it to hold it there and float it over to a (submerged) flatbed trailer at the boat ramp.”

After the logs sink onto the flatbed, they are tied down and transported to a storage facility to dry, a long process.

“It takes a good six months or so for them to dry,” said Jim Cancroft, who works for Northwest Management on the Flathead River site.

And no one would want to be near them until they do.

“They have a pungent odor,” Cancroft said.

Once dry, the logs are transported to a small sawmill as similar to the Somers Mill - which burned in 1957 - as possible.

“We take them to a third-generation owned sawmill that still uses the big 50-inch circular saw,” Corrao said.

The results are formed into furniture, flooring, wall hangings and commemorative wooden boxes that are sold from Nantucket Island to Spokane - and beyond.


Information from: The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, https://www.dnews.com

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