HAMILTON – Every artifact found at a historical site has a story to tell.

On this afternoon, Bitterroot National Forest historian Mary Williams and University of Montana graduate student Kailin Hatlestad are looking over a table filled with little pieces of treasure found at an old logging camp on the forest.

Discovered a little more than a decade ago in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains, the site is still a mystery in many ways.

No one knows how many people worked there. No one knows who employed them. And no one can tell for certain how long the camp lasted.

Unlike many of the historical logging camps scattered across the Bitterroot, this one offered its own unique glimpse into the past, one artifact at a time.

“Its camp dump hadn’t been looted,” Williams said. “That’s unusual. There was still a lot of stuff scattered around that we’ve been able to document.”

On the table, there’s an old whiskey bottle with a piece of wire attached on its neck.

“That little piece of wire told us that someone had used that whiskey bottle to hold some type of saw lubricant, maybe water or kerosene,” Williams said. “It offered us a clue.”

A few discarded beer and wine bottles found in the dump offered another.

“That was a vital piece of information,” she said. “Anaconda Co. camps were dry. In those camps, you would be more likely to find a whiskey flask at the bottom of a latrine. That piece of information hints that this was probably a subcontractor’s camp.”

Pieces of a six-gallon crock that were glued back together added some more information.

“Not only were we able to get a date on when the crock was manufactured, its size told us this probably wasn’t a spike camp,” Williams said. “It probably wasn’t a temporary camp.”

***

Hatlestad is building her graduate thesis around what she’s learned about the old logging camp.

Over the course of her investigation into the camp, she’s located the probable site of the cookhouse, blacksmith shop and corrals. Late last summer, she uncovered a pair of log dogs that loggers used to move heavy logs. They were buried just underneath the surface. She located them using a metal detector.

After carefully uncovering them, she used GPS to mark their location and took a number of photographs to document them in their setting.

“They seemed to be hand-forged,” Hatlestad said. “The work was probably done on site.”

She was looking forward to learning more when she left the historical site for a two-week stint. The log dogs were left in place where they were found.

When Hatlestad returned, she found the items had been taken. Her only clue to who might have removed them was a water bottle left behind.

Hatlestad and Williams hope that the person will return the historical items.

“There will be no questions asked,” Williams said. “They can just bring them back to any Forest Service ranger station. They are an important part of the story that we’re trying to piece together. I’m sure that it was a hunter or someone else who just stumbled across them.”

Unfortunately, Williams said it’s something that happens far too often on public lands.

It is illegal to remove archaeological or historical items from public lands, but people still do. Sometimes they pick up artifacts and drop them by Williams’ office.

That’s not helpful.

Once an artifact is moved from its resting place, it loses its context. For historians like Williams, it creates an often insurmountable challenge in deciphering the story the artifact had to tell.

For instance, the man many knew as "River Ron" once stopped by her office to present her with a prehistoric stone point he had found in the valley floor. He couldn’t remember exactly where it had first caught his eye.

“It’s very, very old and very important,” Williams said, while staring at the point in her hand. “It may have come from a site that could have helped us better understand the ancient history of this valley. Once it was out of its context, we lost all the information that it could have told us.”

***

The logging industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s is another time that still holds mysteries to unlock. Williams would like to see the site where Hatlestad is working eventually become a place where people could learn about that interesting time in the valley’s history.

“I would like to see it eventually turned into an interpretive site,” she said. “Logging and lumber has played such a big role in this valley’s history. Right now, we don’t have any interpretive sites where people can go and learn about it.”

The log dogs would play a role in that.

“The artifacts bring history to life for a lot of people,” Hatlestad said. “They provide a piece of the story that you can’t get any other way. It’s not that we don’t want to share this with people. If the public decides to pick them up and take them away, then no one else benefits. We just hope that whoever found the log dogs will just bring them back.”

No questions asked.

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