Hewitt Emerson stuffed himself into a wetsuit, took a deep breath and plunged from a barge into the murky black waters of the Edisto River.
Emerson swam down to the muck of the river bottom more than a dozen feet below. On deck, his buddy Justin Herrington scanned the banks for alligators and monitored drooping live oak limbs for dangling water moccasins – his Ruger P35 pistol close at hand.
They were in search of treasure – hand-cut logs well over a century old, the forgotten legacy of milling operations that flourished along the river until after the Civil War. Emerson was trying to locate the butt end of a shapely longleaf pine he’d spotted from the barge. The logs can command thousands of dollars for their intricately beautiful grains and long, straight cuts.
Across the coast of the Southeastern U.S., pine and cypress were harvested into the late 1800s. Most logs were lashed together with metal “spike dogs” and floated or towed downstream to mills.
Inevitably, many of the timbers broke loose and tumbled to river bottoms or became embedded in riverbanks. They are now perfectly preserved specimens prized for milling into tables, mantles, bed frames, flooring and bar surfaces.
The special properties of the Edisto River turn old logs into sustained jewels. The Edisto is a “black water” river – the color of black tea because of tannins, or humic acid, released by rotting vegetation. The tannins preserve the wood, which spends generations in waters depleted of oxygen that would normally cause decay.
For the past three years, Emerson, 28, has steered his barge along rivers in South Carolina in pursuit of “sinker wood,” as the logs are known. With his unruly hair and shaggy beard, he looks like a laid-back nature child but is actually a successful Charleston entrepreneur – with interests in Internet services, a restaurant and woodworking.
On this sunny day, he and Herrington were searching for logs to be sliced into slabs at Herrington’s sawmill nearby. Herrington is 34, slender and clean-shaven, with curly black hair. He’s a self-described “country boy” woodworker who lives next door to the sawmill.
Young, active and physically fit, the men are drawn by the lure of the hunt for attractive artifacts they consider potential works of art.
Underwater, Emerson found the end of the pine and struggled to wrap the log with a steel cable. His find was a beauty – nearly 20 feet long, 15 inches in diameter.
Emerson fought the log for a long while, coming up for air several times. He finally got the cable around it and clamped a huge set of metal tongs on the wood.
Herrington cranked the electric winch. The log slowly emerged from the cloudy water like some sea beast, thick and massive, a mottled green and brown.
“Oh, yeah – got it!” Emerson shouted from the water. “You can see the ax-cut on the end.”
Herrington’s yellow lab, Sinker, padded across the barge to sniff the funky-smelling specimen.
After considerable effort, the men lashed the log to the side of the barge.
“Oh, that’s a fine log,” Herrington said, inspecting the prize. “It has a giant heart – I can see that from here.”
Known colloquially as a “heart pine” and commercially as “hard pine,” the log’s core had matured and hardened in the water over the decades to a swirling, tightly packed grain.
“That’s a beautiful piece,” Emerson said. He shook his head briskly to expel river water from his bushy hair and beard. “The rings are tighter than I thought.”
The log could be worth up to a couple of thousand dollars, Emerson figured, once it was cut and milled, then dried in a solar-powered kiln.
Herrington said he sold a cypress table for $7,500 and is asking $10,000 for a massive fish he carved from a cypress log. In his workshop, he’s also using cypress to fashion an expensive 20-foot-long bar commissioned by a tavern owner.
The two men cut most recovered logs into long slabs that expose the grain. “Slabs are what people want,” Emerson said. “An old tree is great, but a giant slab out of that tree is even better.”
Despite the commercial value of sinker wood, few people in South Carolina expend the cost and effort to recover it, said William B. Barr, who owns a marine and terrestrial archaeology company in Leesville, S.C.
“It’s exceedingly dangerous work – not the easy money it might look like on TV,” Barr said. “If you’ve got a log on a winch and it slips off on top of you, you’re dead.”
Barr said he knows of only seven people who hunt sinker wood in the state in addition to Emerson and Herrington. Only a couple turn a profit.
Jim Spirek, South Carolina’s state underwater archaeologist, said sinker wood is also gathered in North Carolina and Florida.
“I get calls from people interested in it – until they find out how much money you have to invest and how hard the work is,” he said.
An annual South Carolina recovery permit costs $500 for in-state residents and $1,000 for others, Spirek said. But to legally recover sinker wood, one also must pay $8,000 to $10,000 for a “submerged cultural resource survey” to inspect and map a mile of river bottom for artifacts such as schooner wrecks, fossils, and “man-made artifacts,” such as sinker wood.
Spirek said Emerson and Herrington were operating with expired annual permits and needed to renew them to avoid fines if they remove any logs from the water. Emerson said he discovered belatedly that the Edisto permit was three days out of date.
Cypress trees were harvested for use in boat hulls and boat decking because of their length and density. Longleaf pines were in such demand for their long, straight trunks that they often were designated “king’s trees” during the colonial era and reserved for making ship masts, Barr said.
The pines were also tapped for rosin and turpentine. Many pine sinker logs recovered today still bear “cat face” cuts, or chevrons, where the trees were slashed to drain resin.
The standard log was cut 14 1 / 2 feet long, Barr said, though some logs exceed 16 feet and can weigh hundreds of pounds. Emerson said the biggest specimen he’s recovered was a 30-foot cypress. Some trees, especially cypress, were well over a century old when they were cut.
To locate logs, Emerson often relies on sonar or studies old railroad maps to determine where logs were unloaded from the river. But on this day on the Edisto, he and Herrington used a more basic method – the naked eye.
They scanned the river for “floaters” – logs that had broken free from the river bottom or banks. They also looked for “big naturals” – trees that were never logged but tumbled into the water on their own. Those may be taken without a permit, Spirek said, as long as the root ball is left intact.
The men plunged into the water wearing wetsuits and flippers and swam down to search for logs.
Emerson and Herrington discovered several promising specimens, and marked the locations on a hand-held GPS device for later retrieval.
Along the weedy riverbank, they stumbled across a massive, partially submerged cypress log. Emerson went under and fought to get a cable around it but couldn’t shoulder the log out of the muck. He marked the location with the GPS.
Toward dusk, Herrington turned the barge back toward home. They chugged along the glassy, deserted river past abandoned rice plantations, lurking alligators, white egrets and turtles that slid off logs and plopped into the dark water.
At the landing, sweating and cursing, they managed to get the longleaf pine log tied up along the bank. Then they slogged onto dry land, wet and sunburned, one more sinker log closer to payday.