Dredging South Carolina's Rivers For Long-Forgotten Timber | KUOW News and Information

Dredging South Carolina's Rivers For Long-Forgotten Timber

Aug 6, 2013
Originally published on August 6, 2013 9:56 am

On the Ashley River, a few miles south of Charleston, S.C., the water is murky and the marsh grass high. A three-man logging crew is cruising on a 24-foot pontoon boat. It's low tide and logs are poking out everywhere.

Hewitt Emerson, owner of the Charleston-based reclaimed wood company Heartwood South, is in charge. He's going to an old saw mill site, but won't say exactly where. He's heading to Blackbeard's Creek, he says, as in pirate Blackbeard — the early 18th century scourge of the seas.

"He'd hide his boat up there and would go across the river to Middleton plantation to see his girlfriend," Emerson says.

Once a secret hiding place for a pirate, this is now a hidden trove of valuable wood.

Like much of the United States, South Carolina was once covered in old-growth forests. By the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, either hauled away on trains or floated down rivers to be cut into lumber at saw mills.

But not all that timber made it to its destination. Some sank on its way down the river, where those old-growth logs have been preserved for about a century. Now, these precious leftovers can be worth up to several thousand dollars each.

But getting that treasure out is no easy task. First, anyone hoping to dredge the logs, known as sinker wood, must obtain a permit from the state. The logs weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. Once removed, the wood must be properly stored before milling to avoid cracking. And then, there are the alligators.

Tracking Down Forgotten Sites

At the old mill site, Emerson revs the motor to try and scare the alligators off. When the coast looks clear, he dives down and attaches logging tongs to the wood. The team then uses a winch on the boat to dislodge the log from the mud.

This log isn't that deep. It slips out pretty easily. And Louis Marcell likes what he sees: tight growth rings, which make for distinct character.

"Yeah it's a good heart pine," Marcell says. "Really tight rings. That's what you want."

The wood they pull is mostly old-growth heart pine or cypress. The crew uses sonar to find the logs and a book of old train lines to find the saw mill sites.

"These are the rail lines that would go through the river," Marcell explains. "And basically, they would set up camp on the sides of the riverbanks so that they could load up the cars and load up the trams right there. So [at] all those sites, there's still logs."

Marcell, 24, grew up in South Carolina. He loves this work. "It's all history and I'm a history buff, so that's what I really like most about it," he says. "Everything that we are doing, we are recovering history."

The piece of history they just pulled out, 24 feet long and 2 feet wide, was probably cut down about a century ago. Emerson thinks it will fetch $800 as lumber, even more if it's used in furniture or art.

The tree this log came from grew slowly because it had to compete for resources in the dense forest. The tight growth rings make for hard wood and intricate detailing — rare features in lumber today.

Capers Cauthen, a local carpenter, says these old trees have great character, like "pecky holes" made by fungal rot. "To me, that's the most beautiful wood," he says. "I mean, it's just gorgeous. You never know what you're going to find when you start cutting into it."

"The old growth stuff is tighter, it's older, it's better," Cauthen says. "Maybe we'll wait hundreds of years before we will get that again. It's gonna have to be a downfall of civilization for it to have a chance for it to grow again."

In the meantime, the best place to find this wood in South Carolina is in the muck underneath the river.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Like much of the U.S., South Carolina used to be covered in old-growth forests. Yet, by the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, floated down rivers and cut into lumbers. Still, not all that timber made it. Some of the logs sank on the way down the river and now they're worth money. Sam Harnett went out with a logging crew searching for that precious old wood.

SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: On the Ashley River, a few miles south of Charleston, the water is murky and the marsh grass high.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR)

LOUIS MARCELL: So the adventure begins. Yep.

HARNETT: Louis Marcell and the rest of Heartwood South's three-man crew are on a 24-foot pontoon boat. It's low tide and logs are poking out everywhere.

HEWITT EMERSON: This is filled if you can image just logs laying over each other.

HARNETT: Hewitt Emerson is in charge. He's going to an old saw mill site, but won't say exactly where.

EMERSON: We're going to Blackbeard's Creek.

HARNETT: That's Pirate Blackbeard - the 18th century scourge of the seas.

EMERSON: He'd hide his boat up there and would go across the river to Middleton plantation to see his girlfriend.

HARNETT: Once a secret hiding place for a pirate, now a hidden trove of valuable wood. Well, getting that treasure out is no easy task. The logs - known as sinkers - weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. And then, there are the alligators.

EMERSON: Did you guys just see that alligator?

MARCELL: Unh-unh.

EMERSON: He just went under.

HARNETT: At the mill site, Emerson revs the motor to try and scare them off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

HARNETT: When the coast looks clear, Emerson dives down and attaches logging tongs to the wood. Then they use a winch on the boat to dislodge the log from the mud.

EMERSON: All right, Louis, lift. Going in. All right, stop.

HARNETT: This log isn't that deep. It slips out pretty easily. And Marcell likes what he sees: tight growth rings which make for distinct character.

MARCELL: Yeah, it's a good heart pine with really tight rings. That's what you want. The wood they pull is mostly old-growth heart pine or cypress. The crew uses sonar to find the logs and a book of old train lines to find the saw mill sites.

These are the rail lines that would go through the river. And basically they would set up camps on the sides of the riverbanks so that they could load up the cars and load up the trams right there. So at all those sites there are still logs.

HARNETT: Marcell is 24 years old and grew up in South Carolina. He loves this work.

MARCELL: It's all history and I'm a history buff, so that's what I really like most about it, is that everything that we are doing is, you know, we are recovering history.

HARNETT: The piece of history they just pulled out was probably cut down about a hundred years ago. It's 24 feet long and two feet wide. Emerson thinks it'll fetch $800 as lumber, even more if it's used in furniture or art. Local carpenter Capers Cauthen says these old trees have great character like pecky holes made by fungal rot.

CAPERS CAUTHEN: To me that's the most beautiful wood. I mean it's just gorgeous. You never know what you're going to find when you start cutting into it.

HARNETT: The tree this log came from grew slowly because it had to compete for resources in a dense forest. The tight growth rings make for hard wood and intricate detailing, rare features in lumber today.

CAUTHEN: The old growth stuff is tighter, it's older, it's better. I mean, we'll wait hundreds of years before we could get that again. There's going to have to be a downfall of civilization for a chance for it to grow again.

HARNETT: In the meantime, the best place to find this wood in South Carolina is in the muck underneath the river. For NPR News, I'm Sam Harnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.