The Tree That Came Home

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Some 35 years ago, a collector of mining equipment was poking through a pile of scrap lumber near the Bell Diamond Mine in Butte, Montana, when he spotted the end of a massive wooden beam. “It was a solid 2 feet square and I had no idea how long it was,” remembered Lloyd Harkins, “I just kept pulling and clearing, and pulling and clearing.” When he finally finished, Harkins had uncovered a 8,864 lb., 92-foot-long beam of gigantic proportions. “The timber had never been used—never had a bolt-hole or anything drilled in it,” he said. “It was in perfect shape.”

The wooden beam had been milled from a massive Douglas fir tree at the end of the 1800’s—very likely at the Port Blakely Mill on Bainbridge Island. Port Blakely was the largest mill of its kind in the world, and the only one with a circular blade large enough to do the job.

In 2001, Gary Engman, the owner of an Idaho timber reclamation business purchased the enormous beam and donated it to IslandWood. This marked the beginning of an interesting pilgrimage that carried the 4½-ton piece of wood from Montana back to its original home in Puget Sound. A triple trailer truck accomplished the first leg of the journey, lugging the beam from Silver Star, Montana to Seattle. From there, the 92-foot timber was transported by Columbia Helicopter across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island—to be set in place as the ridgeline beam of the Welcome Center and Great Hall at IslandWood.

Beam truck.jpg

On the morning of its return to Bainbridge Island – February 14, 2001 – onlookers marveled at its size, attempting to imagine the dimensions of the original tree. Local historian Andrew Price who attended the beam’s homecoming commented on how workers of that era wryly termed the huge milled logs as “Port Blakely toothpicks.”

The giant Douglas fir is thought to have grown 200 years in Puget Sound before being cut down. It now adorns the primary roof truss of the Great Hall and Welcome Center. Each year thousands of students learn about THE TREE THAT CAME HOME, as the beam supports the stories about our regions rich cultural and natural history.