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Dredging South Carolina's Rivers For Long-Forgotten Timber

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On the Ashley River, a few miles south of Charleston, S.C., the water is murky and the marsh grass high. Louis Marcell and the rest of a three-man logging crew are cruising on a 24-foot pontoon boat. It's low tide, and logs are poking out everywhere.

Hewitt Emerson, owner of the Charleston-based reclaimed wood company Heartwood South, is in charge. He's going to an old saw mill site, but won't say exactly where. He's heading to Blackbeard's Creek, he says. As in pirate Blackbeard — the early 18th century scourge of the seas.

"He'd hide his boat up there and would go across the river to Middleton plantation to see his girlfriend," Emerson says.

Once a secret hiding place for a pirate, this is now a hidden trove of valuable wood.

Like much of the United States, South Carolina was once covered in old-growth forests. By the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, either hauled away on trains or floated down rivers to be cut into lumber at saw mills.

But not all that timber made it to its destination. Some sank on its way down the river, where those old-growth logs have been preserved for about a century. Now, these precious leftovers can be worth up to several thousand dollars each.

But getting that treasure out is no easy task. First, anyone hoping to dredge the logs, known as sinker wood, must obtain a permit from the state. The logs weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. Once removed, the wood must be properly stored before milling to avoid cracking. And then, there are the alligators.

With Sonar And Old Maps, Tracking Down Forgotten Sites

At the old mill site, Emerson revs the motor to try and scare the alligators off. When the coast looks clear, he dives down and attaches logging tongs to the wood. The team then uses a winch on the boat to dislodge the log from the mud.

This log isn't that deep. It slips out pretty easily. And Louis Marcell likes what he sees: tight growth rings, which make for distinct character.

"Yeah it's a good heart pine," Marcell says. "Really tight rings. That's what you want."

The wood they pull is mostly old-growth heart pine or cypress. The crew uses sonar to find the logs and a book of old train lines to find the saw mill sites.

"These are the rail lines that would go through the river," Marcell explains. "And basically, they would set up camp on the sides of the riverbanks so that they could load up the cars and load up the trams right there. So [at] all those sites, there's still logs."

Marcell, 24, grew up in South Carolina. He loves this work. "It's all history and I'm a history buff, so that's what I really like most about it," he says. "Everything that we are doing, we are recovering history."

The piece of history they just pulled out, 24 feet long and 2 feet wide, was probably cut down about a century ago. Emerson thinks it will fetch $800 as lumber, even more if it's used in furniture or art.

The tree this log came from grew slowly because it had to compete for resources in a dense forest. The tight growth rings make for hard wood and intricate detailing — rare features in lumber today.

Capers Cauthen, a local carpenter, says these old trees have great character, like 'pecky holes,' made by fungal rot. "To me, that's the most beautiful wood," he says. "I mean, it's just gorgeous. You never know what you're going to find when you start cutting into it."

"The old growth stuff is tighter, it's older, it's better," Cauthen says. "Maybe we'll wait hundreds of years before we will get that again. It's gonna have to be a downfall of civilization for it to have a chance for it to grow again."

In the meantime, the best place to find this wood in South Carolina is in the muck underneath the river.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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