Today I'm writing about the LeConte Lumber Company, no real company but the moniker for the sawmill that operated at LeConte Lodge in the past. Let's get this out of the way first: the sawmill operated cutting up deadfall in the past. We don't cut down anything anymore and haven't for decades. Our current mandate is to let nature take its course. We even plant more native fir trees around the lodge to replace some of the ones killed by the adelgids. Before the lodge installed the current propane heaters, we used kerosene heaters and, before that, wood heat. Each change was made to be more environmentally friendly.
In those days of using wood heat (perhaps some of you visited LeConte in the fireplace days and would like to share your story in the comments section), crew members would hitch up a horse (I profiled Blackie the wonder horse earlier this year) and pull deadfall out of the woods around the lodge. This deadfall had to be cut into useable pieces, so a sawmill of some kind existed near the summit since the lodge was built until the "LeConte Lumber Company" was shut down in the mid-1970s.
Al Bedinger, a LeConte Lodge crew member in the early 1970s, has been a wealth of information about the days of LeConte past and has been generous enough to share his stories and photos of the "LeConte Lumber Company" for this update. In 1973, when these photos were taken, the sawmill was located below the dining room deck, near where the propane tanks are located now. With that, I'll turn the update over to Al, who wrote the following.
"The engine was a Lycoming water-cooled, straight 6 taken from a 1925 Gardner automobile. The carburetor was from a tractor. The sawmill had a hand push-through carriage. Herrick Brown [LeConte Lodge manager in those days] would push the logs through the last little bit using a stick [as seen in the above photo]. Sometimes one of the lodge cats [no pets of any kind are allowed at the lodge now] would ride (who knows why?) on the carriage as we were cutting wood, and Herrick would comment that we would be having cat burgers for lunch. Fortunately the cat would jump off before the 48-inch diameter saw blade made the burgers.
The saw was the 48-inch diameter ring tooth type. The teeth were removable for sharpening. Once while I was running the engine and a large log was being pushed through there was suddenly a very loud screech. Knowing something was wrong I quickly ducked behind the engine. Of course I was way too slow, only lucky as were the other sawmill crew members because the blade hit a 20-penny nail on the diagonal and most of the teeth spit out. I am sure the very high tip speed of the saw blade was such that the teeth were long gone before any of us were able to duck. It could have been a disaster – not unlike getting shot with a 50-caliber machine gun. I still have one half of that nail.
The saw blade was driven with a large canvas and leather belt wrapped around a pulley on the engine and a similar size pulley on the saw blade shaft. The sawmill crew would run beside the mill holding the belt. The engine operator would have the clutch depressed and the engine in second gear. When the saw blade reached a suitable RPM the clutch would be popped and if all went well the Lycoming would fire up. We would cut in third gear.
The water tank [seen to the left of the bears in the below photo] was an old water heater tank. The engine water pump pumped water to this tank and the water was cooled via natural convection. If the water became too hot we would drain off some and replace it with cool water. Herrick, being a child of the Depression, never liked wasting anything so one day he hooked up the tank of hot water to the shower in the laundry [one of the crew quarters] for a “free” shower. Well, the water was quite hot and also quite black so no one used this “free” hot water. The normal shower water was heated via a wood-fired hot water boiler. Wood chips from the wood yard were used for fuel so the showers were essentially free anyway.
I was not on the mountain when a saw log was “launched” but Herrick called me to give me a full report. While pushing a large log through the saw blade the effort was not properly coordinated and the log was slightly skewed and the powerful blade caught the log and launched it over the laundry [the building, not a clothes line]. To my knowledge this was the only attempt to launch a fir log into sub-orbital flight."
Thanks to Al for those fine stories and photos from the LeConte Lumber Company in 1973. It makes me appreciate the propane we use now.
Tuesday marked another day without much temperature swing -- 61 for the high, 56 for the low. We received 0.07 inches of rain. Wednesday morning has been cloudy but the rain returned this afternoon. Happy trails.