Mike Berne Story

Mike Berne, born in 1869, has spent 75 of his 95 years in the Flathead. He had a preemption on some land in the upper valley, south of the Blue Moon. In 1894, he homesteaded in the "home-ranch bottom" of the North Fork. He still owns this land. Mike's brother homesteaded at the west end of Bad Rock Canyon; the Berne Memorial Park is located on this homestead and is maintained by the Montana Highway Department as a public picnic area.

Mike says the North Fork coal mine was discovered by Frank Emerson in 1886. The Northern International Improvement Company, headed by James A. Talbott, an early-day promoter of Columbia Falls, laid out the townsite of Columbia. The company also laid out a townsite near the coal vein, at the mouth of Coal Creek. Northern International intended to build a town at this location and mine coal. But the project failed. Loss of the company's steamboat contributed to this failure.

In 1892, the company built a 75-foot, stern-wheel steamboat, The Oakes, to haul coal from the North Fork mine. Berne and others built the boat. Machinery from a Mississippi river boat was installed in The Oakes on the Flathead River banks, near the old red bridge in Columbia Falls. Powered by two engines operating off a single boiler, the boat had a broad beam and had a power winch in front for use in mooring and for anchoring to trees when the boat had difficulty in fast water or rapids. Northern International's boat had a crew of 14. Steve Lerean served as captain and Christian Presby as pilot; both were experienced rivermen. A man named "Doyle" was engineer, and Clyde Slemmer was the fireman. The boiler was heated with wood. Talbott, Mike Shannon, Bob Hunter, and Tom McDonald were also aboard on The Oakes' maiden voyage May 1892.

The boat's daring crew steamed away from the mooring near Columbia Falls. Bucking the swollen flood waters of the Flathead River, the two engines used steam at a rate greater than the capacity of the boiler. It was necessary to moor the boat to a tree to permit the boiler to build up sufficient steam for the engines. At times, the crew used the winch to pull the boat through the fast current. The Oakes was almost lost in a whirling pool of logs and debris. Out of control, the boat milled 'round and 'round. Even in this hazardous situation, the crew dared the hazardous currents and successfully fastened the winchline to a tree and pulled the boat to safety just below Canyon Creek on the North Fork River. After several days, they had progressed less than 15 miles from Columbia Falls. A less persistent crew would have given up in despair, but these pioneers wouldn't consider turning back.

A short distance above Canyon Creek, The Oakes was moored for the last time. It was snubbed to the only strategically located tree, and the winch began to haul. The Oakes rolled and rocked dangerously as the swollen current struck at various angles. The boat was taking water in the hold as she rolled. Water in the hold set in motion by the rolling, added to the craft's instability. This all proved too much for the mooring tree. It was pulled out by the roots.

As the boat and tree drifted downriver, The Oakes turned over on her side. Most of the crew scrambled to the east shore. Talbott and two men were still aboard, riding the top side, when the boat grounded, nearly upside down, on a bar in midstream. The situation was critical for the three men; the boat might roll over at any minute. The men on shore had a piece of rope, but it was too short to reach the boat. They unstranded the rope, tied the strands together, and tied it to a dry fir log they floated down to the boat from above. This was repeated until all three men were safe on the east bank of the river. Wet and very cold, they were without tools, food, or matches in a wilderness without a trail on their side of the river. Claude Slemmer and a young man called "Slim" suggested they fashion a raft of dry logs and attempt to cross the river with poles. The others did not think this idea sound. However, Slemmer and Slim made a raft and rode it through the fast water for a considerable distance. After many mishaps, they reached the west bank. They proceeded on to Columbia Falls while the others worked their way toward Belton.

The Oakes soon dislodged from the gravel bar and began to break up. Some of the wreckage was recognized as it passed Talbott's house on the banks of the river at Columbia Falls. A rescue party set out immediately to investigate; they were met by Slemmer and "Slim."

It took the others of the party 3 days to get to Belton. The boiler of The Oakes lodged at a point near the mouth of the Middle Fork and was half buried in the gravel. It was visible from the banks of the river for half a century. Many tools and pieces of equipment were recovered when the water receded. A fisherman found one of the two engines in a deep hole near the mouth of Canyon Creek.

The Oakes was the only steamboat to operate on the Flathead River above Kalispell.

Marcus Daly, of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, visited the area in 1893. As a result of this visit, Mike Berne, Shannon, and four other men whipsawed lumber at the site of the mine and built a huge raft. They brought out several tons of coal for testing in Butte. A second raft was wrecked. The Anaconda Company found the coal such a low grade that it was not economical to mine.

The First National Bank of Butte purchased the defunct mine and is the present-day owner. Just prior to 1920, Mike Berne located the North Fork road from the Junkins Ranch on the south to Coal Creek on the north. The road was built by Flathead County. About this time, Claude Elder leased these holdings and successfully operated this coal mine until the late 1930's. At this time, the demand for this low-grade coal diminished, and the mine was shut down. It has remained closed for more than 25 years.

This story of the North Fork coal mining venture was told to me by Mike Berne. A few details were taken from Donald H.'s history "Through the Years in Glacier National Park," published in 1960.

Mike Berne helped name Hungry Horse Creek, now a much-used name in this area. He said that, in the fall of 1900, the Printiville brothers were freighting to the Kintla Lake oilfields. They were fording the South Fork of the Flathead near its confluence with the main river. Traveling light, they tied their lead team—Tex and Jerry—behind one of their rigs. As they started into the river, the two broke loose. Thinking the team would follow them, the brothers went on to Columbia Falls. Tex and Jerry didn't cross the river but worked their way up the South Fork. They couldn't be located. When it snowed, the horses were given up as lost. Later, a trapper saw them in the area of Hungry Horse Creek in a starving condition. He reported his find when he reached Columbia Falls; the Printiville brothers knew these must be their horses. They had Mike Berne pack in some hay and oats to Tex and Jerry. Soon, the two horses had sufficient strength to be brought out over the trail broken out by Berne's packhorses.

When the party came into Columbia Falls with Tex and Jerry—still in a starving condition—a bystander remarked, "That must be a hungry horse country up there." This name stuck.

Mike Berne also told me he named "Mickey Wagoner," another oldtimer who still lives on the land he homesteaded on the east side road above Martin City in 1908. Only a few of Mickey's acquaintances have known throughout the years that the name Mickey Wagoner was not his real name. His land is listed in the county courthouse under the name of John Skubinzncke, his real name, as his Navy discharge confirms. Most of his friends only know him as "A. J." or "Mickey."

In 1908, Mike was foreman of a trail crew building for the Forest Service the first trail from Swan Lake to Spotted Bear Ranger Station. John Skubinzncke was one of his crew. Mike said he had trouble pronouncing John's name, and it was difficult to spell on the time reports. So, one day Mike said "From now on your name is Mickey Wagoner." The young fellow seemed to like his new name. He has used it for more than 55 years on bank accounts, time reports, and, in fact, everywhere, except on his most official papers and records.