Burntside Lake railway and the sunken scow mystery

by Greg Joseph

We have all heard stories of lost pieces of railroad history left abandoned in the woods at the end of the line. Most of them have to do with logging lines that were hastily put down and torn up as the tall trees came and went. <BR><BR>In Minnesota, the logging and lumbering industries were always looking for a better way to transport logs down rivers and across lakes. This led to some very interesting types of vessels. Some vessels were “j erry -rigged” to access areas so that they could go in, log, and get out fast. A lot of their vessels were similar in nature, but each one had a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted look. Some would take a flatbottom boat and put a deck on it, add a steam-powered donkey winch system, and even paddle wheels if needed.<BR><BR>This story is about one of these beauties that I found scuttled in Hoist Bay on Burntside Lake near Ely. This gem, full of character, had a flat-bottom scow with a deck and donkey winch system, and it appears to have had two paddle wheels (note the cutouts for the wheels in photo #2). This boat, called the “bull of the woods”, could pull itself across dry land, winch logs and tow them across lakes and down rivers, and help to load waiting railcars. To give you an idea of how rare this find is, keep in mind that Minnesota only had three of these ingenious vessels. The other two were used on Red Lake.<BR><BR>It all started late one evening during the summer of 2002 when I went to the home of Tony Menart, my good friend and dive partner. While sitting at the table enjoying coffee and fresh, homemade rolls, we discussed looking for a new dive site. We talked about different lakes and all of a sudden it hit me: Burntside Lake! We had been wanting to go there for quite some time. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll pick you up around 7 a.m.”<BR><BR>The next morning, I arrived at Tony’s at 7 a.m. sharp. We loaded the truck and one pot of coffee and a pan of rolls later, we were off to Burntside Lake. We try to keep a real tight schedule, of course! <BR><BR>When we arrived at the boat landing, we started to plan the dive. Some men at work had told me that there was a sunken steamboat somewhere in the lake and we decided to go look for it. Not knowing exactly where it was, we started going to resorts and residences around the lake, asking people if they knew the steamboat’s location. Some said it was in Hoist Bay, others said it was in Steamboat Bay, and some didn’t know anything about it. After five hours of knocking on doors, we finally arrived at a different boat landing near Hoist Bay.<BR><BR>We geared up and went into the water to swim the coastline in search of this elusive wreck. After 45 minutes, we stopped to rest on a point and discuss whether we should continue the search. I told Tony to hang tight while I swam out to an island to see if I could spot anything in the next bay. Halfway to the island, I saw a big pipe sticking out of the water. I called out to Tony. He joined me and we swam to the wreck together.<BR><BR>When we dove the wreck, I got the surprise of my life: this was no steamboat! I recognized it as a donkey winch system mounted on some type of barge. Excitedly, I signaled Tony to surface so I could tell him what we had found. <BR><BR>“This isn’t a steamboat but a scuttled steam donkey,” I told him. He asked what a donkey was, so I explained that is was a steam-powered log skidder used in the old logging days.<BR><BR>We went back down to have a closer look and take some photos. The stack had been damaged from the ice and was rusted, but the boiler itself still held cinders and an unburned log. Most of the drive system, including the flywheels, gears and pistons, could also be seen. The deck itself is amazingly well preserved.<BR><BR>After I returned home, I went to the logging railroad library I had inherited from my father-in-law, Frank King. Based on the photos in these books, including his Minnesota Logging Railroads, it appeared that the donkey we found was a Williamette style. I was beginning to suspect that this was a “Bull of the Woods”, a logging craft with a donkey winch and shallow paddle wheels designed to navigate shallow waters and winch itself across dry land.<BR><BR>Last summer, I took my friend Roger Trout and his son Joel to dive the wreck and take more photos. Roger did some searching on the internet and confirmedmy suspicion: this was most likely a “bull of the woods.” <BR><BR>One of the internet articles was about Benhart Rajala, who worked at floating logs across Burntside Lake. Timber was essential to the underground mines, which could not have operated without this timber to hold the soft earth in place. The poplar wood was used for ammunition boxes and grain doors on boxcars. Since then, we have searched Hoist Bay and have seen many logs and a lot of big logging chains scattered around the bay.<BR><BR>This fall, my wife Sheila had the idea to share our findings with the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. Executive Director Ken Buehler was interested in seeing the photos, since they are the first solid evidence that wrecks like this really do exist. We are making plans to search for other “ghost engines” in the future. Who knows-maybe we’ll find some.<BR><BR>