HELENA — It took eight hours, two trained scuba divers and one 75-ton crane, but the sunken gold dredge below Canyon Ferry Dam is back on dry land for the first time in months.
Earl Griffith and his friend Greg Duncan bought the barge early this year from its previous owners Paragon Mining Inc. with hopes of starting their own mining operation on the vessel.
The two have both previously worked on sapphire mining operations at El Dorado bar on Hauser Lake and were hoping to re-enter the field with the purchase of the 16-foot-wide 30-foot-long boat.
“We were in the process of buying it when we heard the damn thing sank,” said Griffith, an environmental consultant.
It took about three weeks for the barge to sink completely, but, once submerged, it presented a myriad of challenges for removal.
According to the Department of Environmental Quality, Paragon told the agency that the barge came loose under high winds. The pontoons struck rocks below the surface of the water, causing the barge to sink.
Paragon told them all gasoline and antifreeze had been drained and removed from the barge before it sank, but area residents have recently expressed concerns about contamination.
“We were getting a lot of pressure from a lot of different people (to remove it),” Griffith said.
“Greg and I came out within two days but there was no sheen,” he added, asserting Paragon’s claim that all chemical contaminants had indeed been drained.
So with the help of family and Duncan, Griffith set out to create a plan for raising it from the drink and Saturday morning arrived at the scene with the necessary tools to do so.
Tricky positioning, a mini rockslide onto the barge’s submerged decks and unforeseen weight made the endeavor a laborious one.
Divers Glen McKinnon, owner of Helena Scuba, and Paul Montgomery entered the water around 2 p.m. and, except for a brief break to change air tanks, didn’t emerge for over two hours.
The pair was responsible for removing rocks from the deck and positioning three massive canvas crane straps around the boat to prepare it for extrication.
“It takes so much more effort underwater,” said McKinnon, who has experience with recovery dives but said he’s never worked with something as big as the barge.
In addition to battling the freezing waters of the Missouri River in March, the men said communicating amongst themselves underwater was one of the day’s biggest challenges.
“You can’t talk to each other and you can’t see each other,” Montgomery said.
Once the straps were positioned, the Montana Crane Service crane began to raise the vessel from the depths. With only the small wheelhouse visible underwater, many in attendance gawked at the boat’s actual size as it began to emerge.
Just as the deck began to emerge and the day’s mission appeared accomplished, the crane maxed out on its weight limit, prompting a frantic flurry of action both on land and in the water.
After locating two portals on the deck which gave access to pontoons on either side of the boat, water pumps were unloaded onto the deck to drain as much water weight as possible.
More than 2,000 pounds of water later, the barge was still too heavy for the crane.
Operations began to remove anything and everything resting on the deck, and eventually Griffith gave in and allowed his son-in-law to cut a hole through the barge’s aluminum deck to drain an otherwise inaccessible pontoon.
“Not ever having been on it before we didn’t know where anything went,” Griffith said. “We were working in the dark.”
After another two and a half hours of pumping, unloading and improvisation, the vessel was more than 4,000 pounds lighter and was out of the water and sailing in the air to a trailer in a matter of minutes.
“It’s going on a trailer and going to go over to Clancy,” Griffith said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to get it seaworthy again.”
After having seen the rusted vessel up close, Griffith was unsure what to think or whether the barge was salvageable at all.
When asked how he felt about finally getting it out of the water, his only response was, “It feels like we just spent 5,000 bucks.”