Digging Up Whitefish History

By Beacon Staff

Despite associations that suggest the contrary, finding objects six feet underground can be invigorating. This is particularly true when the objects are, as far as anyone can tell, the early foundation for a town.

Construction crews in charge of renovating First Street and Central Avenue in Whitefish have uncovered about 20 logs, roughly nine to 12 inches in diameter and 15 to 20 feet long. Project manager Brandon Theis of Robert Peccia and Associates said, while he isn’t entirely sure of the logs’ purpose, “they’re not there by accident.” He added, “It’s amazing, they’re not rotting.”

“They’re sawed and placed there for a reason,” Theis said. “When they were building the old town, we think, maybe it was swampy and they laid down these logs as a wood cribbing.”

The main water pipe was laid on top of the cribbing, giving further credence to Theis’ theory of the logs serving as a foundation or framework for subsequent infrastructure, likely dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“It would almost have to go back to the origins of town,” Theis added. “You get down below that wood cribbing and you get down into native, undisturbed soils.”

Looking south at Central Avenue and First Street, ca 1909. – Courtesy of Stumptown Historical Society

“That was probably the first thing they put in,” he added. “They had to put that in before they could put anything else in. Then they built on top of that and the rest is history.”

At the nearby Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway cleanup project in Whitefish River, crews have discovered several more logs, though these appear to be remnants of old logging operations, rather than infrastructure. Timber operations used to send logs down the Whitefish River to the eventual destination of a mill in Somers.

In September, the state Land Board gave approval to a logging project that would salvage submerged logs from Somers Bay in Flathead Lake for commercial use. It’s estimated that the project could retrieve more than 5,000 logs in an operating season. A number of those logs came from Whitefish-area timber harvests.

Like the Somers Bay logs, the logs discovered in Whitefish River are in good shape. Karin Hilding, senior project engineer for the city of Whitefish, said she asked project managers beforehand to notify the city if they “ever come upon one of these 100-year-old logs.”

“My understanding is that when logs are underwater they’re actually preserved really well,” Hilding said.

Jill Evans, executive director of the Stumptown Historical Society, has set aside one of the logs to put on display outside the Stumptown Historical Society museum. When she gathers enough information, it will also have an explanatory plaque.

The downtown street project is replacing antiquated underground infrastructure, including the main water line, which Theis said is a treasure in itself. Installed in 1924, it has continually operated as one of downtown’s main water suppliers, Theis said, servicing businesses along Central Avenue from Railway to Third streets.

The water line is being taken out in portions, while other sections will be disabled and left in the ground, Theis said.

“It’s amazing that something that’s almost 90 years old and made out of steel can be in such good shape,” Theis said. “You don’t usually get that kind of life out of a water main. You usually get about 25 years. It tells you how well it was put together.”

He added: “But it’s time to replace it for sure; we’ve found some places where it’s leaking.”

Crews, led by Schellinger Construction, are expected complete the current phase of Whitefish’s downtown improvement project by October. This phase incorporates First Street from Baker Avenue to the alley east of Central Avenue. Finding the logs, as well as other artifacts, hasn’t slowed down work, Theis said.

The street project, including last year’s phase, has also uncovered smaller treasures. Among the discoveries, Theis said, are bottles, ceramic bowls and jars, estimated to be up to 100 years old, or older. Many of the relics are broken, but out of the 60 or so bottles crews have found, about 20 are in good enough shape to give to the historical society, Theis said.

Theis said construction has also exposed charred stumps, which he said were likely burned after long-ago logging operations.

“It’s definitely Stumptown and we’ve proven that,” he said. “We’ve dug up several dozen stumps.”

Theis said the bottles and kitchenware have largely been found about three feet below the surface on First Street, a couple hundred feet within Central Avenue and tucked within 10 feet of buildings.

“As the town grew they brought in more fill, and (the artifacts) ended up being preserved” Theis said. “It’s pretty cool to be finding those things.”

Evans said the artifacts will be on display at the historical society museum. Many of the bottles, she said, held either whiskey or medicine. She notes that heavy opiates and cocaine were among the accepted medicines of the day.

“There were a lot of happy people back then,” she said.

After considering the high percentage of alcohol bottles, Hilding offered a thought.

“It’s been a party town for a long time.”