By Molly Miron
Special to the Pioneer
BEMIDJI – A hazardous inheritance from the early 20th century has raised Beltrami County Sheriff Department concerns, as well as ideas for eliminating the danger.
During the Beltrami County Board’s work session Tuesday, Deputy Sheriff Ernie Beitel presented the history, as well as the possible future, of a line of railroad trestle pilings stretching 900 feet across Lake Irving. The hundreds of pilings once supported a trestle bridge for the Minneapolis, Red Lake and Manitoba Railroad. Timber barons built the railroad in 1905 to transport lumber from the forests of the Red Lake Nation. According to Beitel’s research with the Beltrami County Historical Society, the vision was for the railroad to run from Minneapolis to Manitoba, Canada. However, only 33 miles of track were laid – from Bemidji to Redby. The track was abandoned between 1938 and 1941, he said.
Former Bemidji Public Works Director Andy Mack found blueprints depicting the route of the trestle across Lake Irving’s north end, along with the location of the M., R.L. and M. depot near Irvine Avenue.
Beitel said the remainder of the trestle is a line of pilings in the lake. These are a hazard to boating, especially during the low-water summer of 2012.
“Removal of the trestle consisted of sawing off the pilings when the water got hard,” he said.
Last spring, Beitel said, the Sheriff’s Department began receiving complaints from boaters about the pilings, which are located 15-20 feet apart in parallel lines and could cause wrecks if struck. The result is a Department of Natural Resources permit for the Lake Irving Navigation Hazard Mitigation Project to consider ways to get rid of the pilings. Beitel said the Sheriff’s Department previously contracted with Shore Brothers of Bemidji to extract the hazards.
“When Shore Brothers went out and hitched onto the first one, it popped right out,” Beitel said.
But the company then worked for five hours to pull the next five pilings and quit the project. Beitel said the pilings in the Mississippi River channel are especially adamant because they are either driven deeper into the bottom or are set in concrete.
Beitel said the Sheriff’s Department marks the county’s lake and river channels with buoys each spring. Suggestions for the mitigation include contracting with commercial divers to cut the pilings off well below the surface, at an unknown cost. Another possibility is putting up more buoys with the U.S. Coast Guard approved red diamond danger indicators. Lighted buoys are also in place.
“Hazards – we aren’t required by law to mark them or move them,” Beitel said.
“It’s incumbent on you (boaters) to know the buoys,” said Commissioner Jack Frost. “It’s inconceivable that you would have to remove every hazard. I think we’ve done our due diligence here.”
However, Commissioner Joe Vene expressed concern that the county is responsible and could be liable for boating safety.
“The liability is with the individual,” said County Attorney Tim Faver.
Commissioner Jim Lucachick said installing the buoys avoids the issue rather than finding a real solution.
“Get rid of the problem rather than just buoy around it,” he said.
He recommended obtaining a firm estimate for removing the pilings and obtaining partnerships with the DNR and the city of Bemidji to share the costs.
The commissioners took no formal action on the issue, but agreed that partnerships would be reasonable.
By Molly Miron