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A colorful history



By Emily Stifler, managing editor
Photos courtesy of Northwest Management
During the log drives in the early
1900s in Northwest Montana, sawyers
on the Flathead and Swan rivers
hand-branded the large timber they
cut before sending it downstream to
Flathead Lake on spring log drives.
This marked ownership of the logs,
and was also a way for lumberjacks
to count and be paid for their work.
Timber bound for the Somers Lumber
Mill, started by George DeVoe in
1901 and funded partly by the Great
Northern Railway, was marked with
a ‘Circle N.’

When the logs reached Flathead
Lake, they were
barged to the
Somers mill on
the lake’s north
shore. The mill
used mostly
Douglas fir for
the railroad
ties it provided
Great Northern
Railway and, by
1910, produced
more than 30
million feet of
lumber annually.

[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framedall=”black”
desc=”Somers Bay 1930s”][/dcs_img]

George’s wife
Donetta worked
as the company
bookkeeper. She
noticed they
paid the sawyers for more logs than
showed up at the mill—a percentage
of the logs were “sinkers” and are
still on the bottom of the lake.

A fire destroyed both the mill and
more than a million board feet of
lumber in 1957. The mill was never
rebuilt, and the DeVoes often talked
about the submerged logs and the
money it could have provided their
children and grandchildren.

In 2004, Donetta contacted Alan
Leener, whom she’d met in 1968
as a traveling women’s clothing
salesman. When she asked Leener
to help form a company to recover
the sunken logs, he told her he was
in the garment business and knew
nothing about wood.

“Well, honey, you better start learning
about wood, and damn quick,”
Donetta said and slammed down the

That was the inception of North
Shore Development LLC, which
later hired Northwest Management
to oversee and
implement the
project. A natural
resource planning
and project
company, Northwest
has offices in
Moscow, Idaho,
Deer Park, Wash.,
and Helena and
Big Sky, Mont.

Jim Cancroft, a forester
with Northwest
has spent the last
three years figuring
out how to
pull these logs out
of the lake in an
environmentally sensitive manner.
Cancroft helped write the Big Sky
Forest Stewardship Plan and has
implemented numerous forest health
improvement projects.

North Shore spent four years in litigation
with the Montana Dept. of Natural
Resources over ownership of the
logs, and finally settled in 2009.
Subject to the Montana Environmental
Policy Act, North Shore,
under Northwest Management, can
now collect the submerged logs. The
branded ‘N’ logs belong to North
Shore, and the other brands—and
they’ve found many others—belong
to the state. North Shore pays the
state a royalty on all manufactured

[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framedall=”black”
desc=”Custom hand-crafted Flathead Lake larch coffee table”][/dcs_img]

In the past two years, Northwestern
has pulled out nearly 1,000 logs,
Cancroft says. He’s hired local divers
to attach airbags or eyebolts to
the logs, which are then winched
up to a pontoon boat and trailered
out of the lake.

After they’re measured, they’re
loaded onto trucks and transported to
a mill in Bonners Ferry, Idaho and to
Hunts Timbers in St. Ignatius, Mont.
Northwest has contracted with these
mills to produce specialty forest products
like tongue and groove flooring,
paneling, and rough cut lumber used
for bar tops, mantles and doors.

A lot of the wood has reacted to being
in the water, says Loren Pinksi, who’s
helping distribute the lumber.
The larch has turned chocolate
brown, with streaks of black, green
and violet, while the pine has been
stained peach, black, gray, charcoal
and blue. They even counted the
rings on one big, twisted larch back
to 1534.

Word about the project is getting
around, Pinski says. They’ve already
sold rough-cut lumber, fireplace
mantles and doors around Montana.
A new brewery in Missoula bought
a big slab of larch for its bar top, and
a musician bought a piece to build a
bass guitar for his son.

Cancroft, who admittedly loves
wood, says that while salvaging
wood from lake bottoms is not
necessarily unique—it’s happening
in the Great Lakes, for example—it’s
the history, the environmentally
sensitive manner in which logs are
salvaged from the bottom of Flathead
Lake, and the beautiful variety
of colors of the milled lumber, that
makes this Montana forest product
so unique and special.

A shipment of flooring, paneling
and rough-cut lumber has recently
been sent from Hunts Timbers to
Montana Reclaimed Lumber
in Gallatin Gateway.

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