07 June 2010

Moving Logs: a 19th century flume

In the late 19th century, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) was running out of timber. It needed logs both to fuel the smelter in Anaconda and to shore up the underground tunnels in Butte. By the 1880s, this hunger for timber carried across the Continental Divide, from the West Slope company operations in the upper Clark Fork River basin to the relatively pristine slopes of the Big Hole River watershed.

Thanks to careful surveying and engineering, contractors could build flumes to float logs across the Divide by starting on high slopes and running the water (and logs) through a lower pass. ACM contracted with A.A. McCune & John Caplice in the 1883 for the initial construction and operation of a flume from the California Creek area on the Big Hole side and down Mill Creek on the Clark Fork side. This operation was expanded by William R. Allen c. 1906-1911. Here's a historical photo from 1906 of a portion of the flume in French Gulch (Mansfield Library photo):

Friend Dave Carter & I have decided to hike and document what remains of Allen's 18-mile long flume.

Each year, more than 600 men and nearly a hundred teams of mules stripped the hills of timber. By the early 1900s, hundreds of millions of board feet had been clear-cut, and the resulting outrage over environmental damages led President Theodore Roosevelt to create the Big Hole Forest Reserve (now the Beaverhead  National Forest) in 1906.

Here's a contemporary view of a portion of the flume, more or less across the center of the photo:

Note the extensive erosion on the hillside in the upper portion of the photo, caused by clearcutting and exacerbated by toxic arsenic pollution from the ACM smelter. Note also the several trestles still standing (in the aspens at left center) and, in the left foreground, the large amounts of material excavated to build the flume in some areas. This material was dug by hand and moved by teams of mules using "flip pans" or "scraper pans" like this one that Dave & I found:

In operation, they worked like this (photo from ruralheritage.com):

In most places, you can track the flume by the erosion or by the remaining woody debris (note the bit of remaining snow):

Rarely, protected by wind and held up by trees, a few trestles remain standing:

Construction was simple, using primarily rough timbers with sawn boards only for the top supports and the V-shaped flume itself:

Occasionally, there are other relics, such as log cabins and this structure--probably a log tent platform:

The dogs came along and had a great time investigating another sort of history--one having to do with scent trails and dead animal parts. Here's JackTheDog smiling over a fine, ripe old elk hoof:

While eating lunch (the human animal's kind), my theory of ravens was once again confirmed. A single raven flew past, circled us, and flew off. It returned a few minutes later with two comrades, and they set up a huge fuss circling the little valley a half-mile below us. As we hiked up over the ridge to return to the truck, we glassed down the valley and sure enough there was a yearling moose browsing in the willows. I'm sure the ravens were very disappointed we did not kill it "for them."


secret agent woman said...

That would make me want to find a sled that would fit the flume.

Anonymous said...

The north woods of Maine shares a similar past, but on a smaller scale. My husband's family lived just south of the Quebec border, and we used to spend lots of time in the woods around the old logging camps. Logs were still being run down the river to the mills then, too.

Lots of the men in my mom's family were loggers in Oregon, and even my dad for a while, so stories like this have always interested me.

The little town of Moose River, Maine put out a book of the history of the area a few years ago, and I found it interesting that many of the local loggers followed the industry west as the they used up the forest here.

This was a great post, Pat.

Janie said...

Interesting that the ravens would scout for you...
There is an old flume north of Vernal, Utah, built in about the same time period.
It's sad to see so much erosion on the mountains, still visible after all these years.

troutbirder said...

There is nothing better that the history you can go and see for yourself...even if its one hundred and thirty years old. Some important lessons still there for today. Thanks Eco

Elizabeth said...

Sounds like you will have a wonderful hike! Can't wait to hear and see more. Looks beautiful.

The Crow said...

Am I off base to think the clearcutters were to the forests what the off-shore drillers are to the oceans?

The end result is tragedy for the environment, no matter who does what.

~ Sheepheads said...

Howdy ER,

We enjoy your theories on the Ravens!

Nice old logging photos. Reminds me of the old photos in the Orofino, Idaho, burger joint that outline the history of the industry in the Clearwater area.

Have a good day.

Anonymous said...

Thsi was good. The secret agent woman talked about sledding the flume. I don't know about that but always herd stories about the loggers riding the logs down it to Anaconda for payday.

Judy said...

Speaking of chewing smelly old feet - do you know what they are charging for pieces of antler, for chewing, at the pet food store? Highway robbery!!!

Ann said...

I watched a recent US timber documentary. They used something like a flying fox to take the timber logs out. The machine must be so powerful.