My hiking companion looked down from the last switchback. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to this structure.
I was relieved to find it still intact — not fallen down and washed away or, God forbid, pilfered. Few people know about this last remnant of a flume. There aren’t many of these relics left from the watercourses constructed more than a century ago by the tie hacks, whose highly dangerous work not only helped to build the railroads that made the West but also, in a sense, created the town of Dubois.
In the early days of the last century, the tie hacks cut lumber from these mountains and fed the logs via these flumes to the Wind River, where they were floated down to Riverton to be stacked and sent on by rail. All of the tie-hack work was demanding, and much of it was potentially deadly. (Read much more in Knights of the Broadax.)
The tie hacks lived in camps in the mountains above Dubois, using the long cold winters to fell the trees and the warmth of spring to direct the logs into the flumes and down toward the river. Their stories are the kind that make you marvel at those who built these communities. The tie hack villages and their stores and post office disappeared long ago, the community essentially relocated to Dubois.
One of the tie hacks, Fritz Stevens, was still alive to tell the story when I moved to Dubois. Their achievements and exploits still survive in exhibits at the Dubois Museum, in the annual Swedish Smorgasbord (celebrating dinners in the tie camps, many of whose residents were Scandinavian), and in the surnames of many descendants who still live in town. In this picture you can see the late Fritz Stevens, sitting down with his cane and somewhat obscured by the shade, demonstrating knot-tying at a recent Museum Day.
I once heard Fritz tell of enduring a logging accident that sent a pole into his mouth, knocking out several teeth and letting loose lots of blood. There would be no talk of a trip to a medical clinic, of course: There was no medical clinic. He stopped the blood, took a rest, and got back to work.
The tie hacks are gone, but the lumbering goes on. Here’s the house my neighbor is building slowly, all by himself (with help from friends) with logs left over from his long life in the industry. His wife is Fritz Stevens’ neice. Although the couple grew up in this area, they spent several years in Alaska working for the timber industry, and they have some hair-raising stories to tell about the danger of that work. As I gaze at the huge logs that make up my own house, I think now of the perils that must have been involved in providing them.
It’s been many decades since the lumber mill, once the basis for Dubois’ economy, closed up shop. But logging trucks still rumble down the highway every day, and things are looking up: The US Forest Service recently reopened logging in the Shoshone National Forest, so that some of the many trees killed by pine bark beetles can be removed.
It’s been sad to see that forest graying and dying in patches, and good to know that the damaged lumber will come to some use (thereby reducing the risk of fire). Said a man hauling a load of wood I met at the end of a hike the other day: “It’s easy pickins.” They can’t take it away fast enough now.
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© Lois Wingerson 2015