The following is a guest post by Rob L. Thornton
North Idaho is a weird place, and the deeper you go the weirder it gets. I spent a week this past June going deep and weird, the end result of about six months of research into the history of our logging industry back in the early 1900s.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about what they did to the old-growth woods back then, and still do. But despite that, I found myself fascinated with the totally insane engineering required to pull it all off: Steam donkeys, logging trains, river drives, chutes, plumes—back in the day, getting trees to the mill took a Rube Goldberg machine of heavy equipment, each stage more hazardous than the last. I tried to wrap my head around it, even making a website to illustrate some of the process and the machinery involved.
Then a local old-timer dropped a bomb.
“You know,” he said, “a lot of that stuff is still out there in the forest.”
The post-industrial woodlands were calling, and I just had to go. So I did—camping out of my Jeep and toting my rifle over hill and dale in search of lost machinery and other relics. And boy, did I find them. I mentioned logging trains, right? Well here’s one of them—the Climax 103, to be exact.
It was common practice to send logs back to the mill by train, and they laid track all over North Idaho for that exact purpose. In some cases, that meant building trellises over ravines, like the one in the picture below. In others, it meant cutting a line straight up a mountain, and straight down the other side, and using miles of cable to raise and lower the trains—because no train was getting up a 45° incline under its own steam.
The story goes that Climax 103 broke free about halfway up and came down like, well, a freight train. You can imagine the commotion—people jumping out of the way and hollering down the mountainside for others to do the same. At the bottom of the slope it jumped the tracks, jumped the creek, and tumbled end-over-end for a couple hundred yards. And there it lies today, a massive testament to engineering, or foolhardiness, or both.
I’d heard about logging trains and old trellises and dilapidated equipment out in the woods, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. At first, I thought it was the scale of these relics: 40-foot-tall structures, steam engines weighing god-knows-how-many tons, spools of inch-thick yarding cable nuzzled into the earth.
But as I continued to search, I realized it was more than that. Scale matters, but only to highlight the already-stark juxtaposition of machinery quietly populating an otherwise-wild landscape. Something else was going on here, even if I didn’t know just what.
The more stuff I found, the more that feeling — whatever it was — set in. Some might call it spiritual, but I wouldn’t have gone that far, at least until my last day in the woods.
I was moving up a trail and looking for an old steam donkey—a massive wood-fired engine that reeled in logs on miles of steel cable. These “donkeys” were often taken deep into the woods, and were almost never taken out. I’d seen bits and pieces of them earlier in the week — that spool of cable in the picture above is from a steam donkey — but nothing like what came into view after the final bend in the path:
Incredible, surreal, breathtaking — those words and more came to mind, and I stopped dead in my tracks. Like everyone gathered around the campfire on this site, I’ve thought a lot about a post-civilization future and try to prepare for however much of it might play out in my lifetime. But that future had just been guesswork and projection, until now.
This steam donkey was already in a world after civilization crumbled. All of the logging equipment I’d found was. All week I’d been stumbling upon artifacts from a lost civilization — our own. The future I’d spent so time imagining? I was looking right at it.
I couldn’t help but wonder what future generations might think about this steam donkey—an object, perhaps, of fear and worship, a mystery to be understood through myths not yet told. Here with this donkey, I wished I could hear those future myths myself.
RLT, signing out.