Timber from the skyA century-old beam comes home for environmental education.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:38 PM
"It's the tree that came home.A 92-foot beam, milled from the heart of a massive Puget Sound Douglas fir, was reclaimed from a Montana mine and flown from Seattle to Bainbridge Wednesday.This has got to be one of the biggest ones, Bainbridge historian Andrew Price said as the beam came to earth at the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center. This is one beautiful, big timber from a tree hundreds of years old.Suspended under a hovering Boeing Vertol helicopter high above the PSELC site north of Blakely Harbor, the beam briefly resembled the 19th century nickname sawmill workers gave the big logs - Port Blakely toothpick.Perspective shifted rapidly to reveal the timber's true proportions as the helicopter descended, blowing dust and debris into the faces of hardhat-clad onlookers and depositing the 9,000-pound beam into place.Thirty-five people clambered onto the timber for a snapshot, in a moment that was a flashback to sepia-tinted photographs of loggers perched atop felled giants. The spirit animating this snapshot was conservation, not exploitation, however.We brought this tree back to Bainbridge as a model of the difference in forest use 100 years ago and today, PSELC Executive Director Thane Maynard said. We don't need to cut old growth - we can use smaller trees from sustainable forests and still build what we need. It's 'best practices' 1880 versus 2001. Three years ago, PSELC board chair Debbi Brainerd began to research building an environmental learning center on Bainbridge. The outdoor education facility, now under development by the Brainerd Foundation on 255 acres of forests and wetlands, will teach community and environmental stewardship to young people from all over Puget Sound. In the spring of 2002, the overnight facilities, tech labs and learning studios PSELC will open. It's exciting to think that kids will be learning here in just another year, Brainerd said.A crane will hoist the beam to the ridge line of a building that will serve as environmental center's great hall.It's likely that the Douglas fir would have been milled at Port Blakely, according to Price, since no other mill had a circular blade large enough to do the job. The sawmill at Port Blakely was the largest in the world by the close of the 19th century.Port Blakely and Port Madison mills were like the Boeing and Microsoft of the 19th century, said Joan Piper, Bainbridge Historical Society director.The tree probably wasn't harvested on Bainbridge, Price said, because the island had already been cleared of its biggest trees by that point. Instead, the fir was probably floated by barge from Shelton, Skagit or Snohomish. Then, the milled beam would have been sent by railroad to a Montana mining operation. There, Price said, its massive size would have kept it aboveground, used to anchor heavy equipment, perhaps the crusher that ground up the rock. Douglas fir, a wood that does not transfer vibration, would have been a good choice.One hundred years later, Gary Engman of Timber Creek, a timber reclamation business, found the beam in Montana and donated it to PSELC. Engman contacted Don Patterson at Columbia Helicopter. The company donated the $22,000 helicopter trip across the Sound. Working on this project was very satisfying, Patterson said. We're all glad to see the big tree come home. "