BONNER – The sawmill that was at the heart of the Anaconda Company’s lumber operations through the guts of the 20th century is the latest casualty to change.
A large Komatsu shearer bearing, literally, jaws of steel on Friday tugged down part of a towering boiler next to the mill that dates back to 1919, after a devastating fire ravaged the original one.
The mill on the banks of the Blackfoot River was dwarfed in later years as first Anaconda, then Champion International, expanded operations away from the river.
The back end of the abandoned sawmill was demolished last year during cleanup of a PCB-laced cooling pond next to the Blackfoot River, said Steve Nelson of Western Montana Development, which bought the former Stimson Lumber Co. mill site in December.
Roughly half of the remaining yellow building will be scrapped in the next couple of weeks.
“There’s really no value there, so we’re going to take it down,” Nelson said.
The old timbers will be recycled by Heritage Timber of Potomac, and some of the equipment that was inside is still usable.
“We’re probably going to end up with, I don’t know, 10 or 12 big electric motors, and they’re good motors. There’s a market for them,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to wait for the right guy, because not everybody needs a 500-horse motor.”
Gone already is a large A-frame shed to the west that Champion International and later Stimson used for storing hog fuel for the sawmill boilers. The first boiler has been scrapped, and Bjorn Johnson Construction’s shearer was chewing away at the second one Friday morning.
“We had everybody in the world look at them,” Nelson said of the boilers. “They’re antiquated, and there’s just no value there as far as being able to do anything with them.”
Construction company foreman Warren Nogle was in the driver’s seat of an excavator that piled the metal pieces out of the way. Nelson said later in the day the shearer would snip the debris into like-sized pieces to be loaded onto rail cars that make twice-weekly trips to a metal recycler in Tacoma, Wash.
The remains of the A-frame still lay on the ground in heaps. Heritage Timber will sort the metal from the wooden beams and reclaim what can be reclaimed. The rest of the wood will end up in a grinder for hog fuel, Nelson said.
It’s the only salvage/scrapping operation Nelson and partner Mike Boehme have planned for the 170-acre mill site that Stimson shuttered in 2008. When the remnants are cleared away, there’ll be 15 to 20 more open acres – though there’s no shortage of either open space or vacant buildings, Nelson noted.
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The scrapping operation has no connection to a new cleanup that Stimson Lumber is obliged to sponsor after more contaminants were discovered in the soil around a pump house behind the sawmill. Stimson is working on a repository plan for that project and an announcement from the Department of Environmental Quality is expected as early as next week.
Boise Inc.’s chipping operation on the west end of the mill site is the most visible, but Boehme and Nelson now have three tenants. Northwest Paint Inc. moved into part of the former plywood plant in 2010. In March an artist blacksmith/metalsmith shop, Hellgate Forge, moved into what once was the lumber and plywood plants’ machine shop and two other buildings near the sawmill.
Nelson said the mill site “seems to be on the radar” of other companies looking to relocate, but said he couldn’t be specific.
Meanwhile, Boehme and Nelson expect to close in the next couple weeks on the purchase of 26 homes across Highway 200 from the mill. Treasure State Bank claimed ownership of the former company houses after previous owner Scott Cooney went through bankruptcy proceedings.
They already own two rows of boarded-up houses on the northeast end of Bonner.
“After further investigation, our hope is to resurrect them and remodel them and turn them into houses again,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to figure out a sewer situation for them, but amazingly, some of them are in pretty darn good shape inside. There’s a couple there that if you went in and cleaned the carpets – and keep in mind you don’t have sewer and there’s work to be done on the water – I think you could open them up.”
Meanwhile photographer Chris Chapman, a friend of Boehme and Nelson, is documenting the scrapping project and posting his photos on chrischapman.photoshelter.com. And many a former millworker is keeping an eye on what’s happening to their old world.
Glenn Smith, who worked under three mill ownerships over the course of more than 40 years, is doggedly collecting and recalling the history of an operation that within a few years of its opening in 1886 was the largest lumber operation between Minneapolis and Puget Sound.
The sawmill rose quickly from the ashes of the January 1919 fire, which was hailed as “the greatest fire in the history of western Montana” by the Daily Missoulian. By late September, the mill was sawing logs again.
It was described in 1939 by the Federal Writers Project as a black-frame shed, 300 feet long and 150 feet wide with catwalks that afforded “a safe view of the screeching, bellowing room” below.
“It’s pretty tough for me to see it all happen,” Smith said of the scrapping operation. “I always thought it would last forever. But it looks like what’s coming back is going to be good also.”