Farm Collector

A Stronghold of Steam

Box 153 Rathdrum, Idaho 83858

The grand old all steam sawmill in its picturesque setting at
Nespelem, Washington, is gone. The residents are no longer awakened
by the wail of the morning whistle. All that remains is memories
and a large concrete gravestone on which the great steam engine
once stood.

The mill was built at Conconully, Washington, in the year of
1910, but our story begins in 1934 when Mr. Duncan and the late Mr.
Wyett moved the mill, saws, timbers, spikes, belts, nails,
planking, shafts, boiler, engines and all from Conconully to
Nespelem. During construction Mr. Duncan once called one of the
crew, Mr. Davis, over to him. Mr. Davis put down his tools and made
his way across the unfinished sawmill to where Mr. Duncan was
laying plank. ‘Look here,’ says Duncan, ‘I found a nail
that has never been drove before.’

The Wyett-Duncan Mill ran steady for many years until the sad
day in 1961 when fireman Roy Richardson (a veteran of 20 years with
the company) blew the 5 o’clock whistle and shut down the
graceful 14 by 18 Ames side crank steam engine.

For the next six years the old mill was idle. Parts were sold
and stole. E. T. Jones of Riverside, Wash., bought the feed engine.
Then along came an old stubborn sawmiller and die-hard steam man,
L. T. Starkey. He purchased the old mill, renewed the lease on the
ground under it, hired fireman Richardson and the two of them
rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The 11,000 brick dutch
oven under the 72′ by 18′ H. R. T. had been partly knocked
down by the vandals and over 1,000 bricks thrown into the pond.
Starkey’s mother, up for a visit, retrieved, cleaned and relaid
the bricks almost single handed. While the men overhauled and
patched up the rest of the mill, the sidewalk superintendents came
around every few days. The town buzzed with rumors, the pessimists
preached that the mill would never run again. The modernists
preached that the mill was obsolete and inefficient and was not

July 1968, two months after Starkey moved on the property, the
mill was ready to saw. Lack of logs was the only holdup.

August 1, 1968, 5 a.m., the Nespelem residents, including the
pessimists, were blasted out of their beds by 3 whistles blown
simultaneously, 8 a.m. the Soule twin feed engine borrowed back
from E. T. Jones of Riverside, fed the first log through the double
circler rig. Starkey ran the mill with five men including himself.
He sat and sawed, Richardson fired, oiled, and run the pond, an
edgerman and two men tailing the mill. Steam power in the Nespelem
Mill cost 38 cents per 8 hour day, including all maintenance and a
$20.00 a year boiler fee. The power plant nearly ran itself. After
the mill was running a few minutes, the sawdust feed set, dampers
adjusted, the 1′ injector turned on, the water level
wouldn’t vary an inch by noon or the steam pressure 10 lb.
Fireman Richardson was fireman by title only, as he simply checked
the steam plant every 15 minutes or so, you might say in his spare
time, so his wages can’t be charged to power in all fairness.
Actually, he was the pond monkey.

The mill had a live deck and a mechanical nigger, both belted to
the powerful balanced valve Ames. The carriage was equipped with
air driven boss dogs, hand bull dogs and hand set works with spring

Starkey sawed an average of 2100 board feet per hour, and the
old slab factory spit out lumber for total sawing cost of $9.00 per
thousand board feet including labor, power, oil saw teeth, rent,
belts, repairs and taxes. Match that with your so called modern

Besides making Starkey a very good income, the old mill gave
good entertainment. Things never got dull too long. One fine day
everything was running very smooth, when the expansion joint in the
main steam pipe blew apart. Boy! if that didn’t make things
fly!! The air was full of sawdust, rafter splinters, steam, Indians
and 14 sheets of roof tin. One big Indian ran down the middle of
the track and made a record broad leap that cleared carriage, log
and end of mill, and ended with a great splash in the pond.

Another dull week was ended when the governor pulley came loose
on the 5 by 7 vertical engine that drove all the conveyers. The
pulley spun off the governor shaft and the engine run wild. When
Starkey got to his pet engine, it was rotating at a terrible pace.
Before he could shut it down, the nipple between the governor and
valve chest broke and the steam pipe wrapped itself around the
trusses, governor and hidrastatic lubricator still attached

Then there was the time Starkey decided to dredge part of the
mill pond with ditching dynamite. He drained the pond and planted 5
cases of dynamite in nice neat rows, then set if off at 8 p.m. one
night. The resulting explosion really done a good job of dredging.
However, it also shattered a few windows on the west side of town
and sent a sunken log whistling into the air that came crashing
down on the poor old Nespelem sawmill. All good things must come to
an end sooner or later; this includes romantic old steam sawmills.
The Nespelem Mill sawed its last log on the 18th of May, 1970. It
was a sad day for all concerned for many people had come from far
and wide to see the steam driven landmark run.

If the old mill would saw so cheap and make a profit for its
owner, then why was it shut down and dismantled? That is a good
question and here are some good answers.

No. 1 Timber was very hard to get in the Nespelem area, the bulk
of the logs Starkey sawed came from Curlew, 80 miles away.

No. 2 Labor was very poor class, mostly Indians. Starkey went
through 23 men and in the 2 years he ran, he never had a full crew
Monday morning. Some Mondays no one showed up at all except for
fireman Richardson a white man as dependable as the engine.

No. 3 Vandals would sneak into the mill at night and bust light
bulbs and the glass out of oil cups and toss loose sawmill parts,
saw teeth etc. into the pond, and leave ‘nature’s
calls’ on drivebelts.

No. 4 Thieves stole tools, gasoline and even lumber.

No. 5 The mill was on leased Indian ground which could not be
bought and could be only leased 2 years at a time and each 2 years
they raised the rent.

No. 6 The mill yard was cramped and only big enough and there
was no chance to expand it.

No. 7 There was a land corner stake under the head rig, so part
of the mill was on two other pieces of ground that wasn’t in
the lease. This never caused any trouble, but could have.

No. 8 The log pond was another Indian lease, and it was fast
silting in to a point where mechanical dredging was necessary as
the authorities informed Starkey that there was to be no more
dredging with dynamite. Also, logs were forbidden to be bucked in
the pond for fear of killing the fish, so they had to be bucked in
the yard which further cramped it.

No. 9 The mill was built on wooden mudsills which were rotten.
Many of the mill’s timbers were rotten, the high speed steam
carriage drive literally shook the old rickety mill apart. Many
long hours were spent installing sister timbers and braces trying
to hold the old mill together against the powerful steam

Starkey stayed long enough to prove his point. He shut up all
the pessimists and modernists, for the ancient steam mill ran right
through the lumber crash in the late spring of 1969, and on through
the summer and fall, while the so called modern mills folded up
right and left; and it continued to run into the winter until the
log pond froze over. The next spring the old plant was sawing
again, but the end was in sight, because Starkey had decided to
move his operations into Idaho where timber was much easier to
obtain and the ground under the new mill would be his. So Starkey
spent the best part of 1970 dismantling and hauling the old mill to
its new setting 6 miles northeast of Rathdrum, Idaho, a tremendous
and tiring task at best which he tackled single handed.

It is doubtful that the Nespelemites or anyone that met him will
ever forget Starkey, the sawmiller, a rugged individualist that has
made and spent, or lost a fortune and has been flat broke at least
a dozen times. Handmade, sixteen inch top logging boots, stagged
off trousers, and wide black suspenders are his trademark. In his
late twenties, with greying temples, he lives alone in his cozy ex-
W. I. & M. railroad caboose spotted on his land over-looking
the new mill sight. At the time of this writing, January 1971, the
heavy duty Ames engine, boiler, and other machinery and timbers lay
covered with snow at the new setting.

When spring breaks, construction will start, and by fall of 1971
the mighty and handsome Ames engine will be proudly throned in its
spotless new tile and glass engine room, its 7′ flywheel
silently delivering steady, dependable, low cost steam power to the
new Swiss watch, or rather sawmill. An 8′ steam shotgun will
propel the 700 lb. carriage at lightning speed, a 7 by 12 two drum
steam donkey will be perched on the hill above the mill to dump
logs into the pond. A 24′ gauge steam locomotive will shuttle
the mills cut about the track infested yard. A 15-40 case steam
traction engine will furnish any belt or draw-bar power needed
around the property. The new line shaft machine shop will be driven
by a beautiful pop-bottle 5 by 7 vertical engine.

So it will be a great and mighty stand of the reciprocating
steam engine, a small remnant of the age of iron machines surviving
in the age of trash. A few proud and noble well kept engines
performing their daily work in a small world of their own,
unthreatened, and unmatched by what passes for progress.

How long will it run? Be assured that this highly efficient and
extremely competitive little steam driven mill will saw as long as
there is timber available in northern Idaho.

Iron men are always welcome, so be sure to drop in if you ever
get near. Simply drive to Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, get on Hi-way
95 and head north. Ten miles north of Coeur d’ Alene is
Garwood, I mile north of Garwood is a cross road, turn left (west)
1 mile in is a jog and hill, on top of the hill a driveway to the
right (north) take it, you are there.

  • Published on Jul 1, 1971
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