Chuck Reitz dug into the vault of this tiny mining town and discovered a mother lode.
It is a perfectly preserved 1913 document, signed by President Woodrow Wilson, giving land to the village of Mullan.
It’s timberland the city didn’t know it owned. It can be logged and sold or kept as a perpetual source of revenue.
“At first glance, the city surveyor thought it was about 70 acres,” City Councilman Reitz said Tuesday. “Now, he figures it’s close to 100 acres, maybe more.”
The windfall could be protection from property tax increases for this town’s 900-some residents.
Reitz’s search for the land patent, as the document is known, sprang from the council’s decision to cut trees on what it thought was 11 city-owned acres.
In the course of preparing for the logging and eventual sale of the property as home lots, surveyor Chris Pfahl found records that referred to the 1913 document.
Early this month, Reitz began digging around in the vault.
“Lo and behold, it was there in a stack of paper,” he said. “It was stuck in a bunch of quitclaim deeds that hadn’t been taken care of.”
The land was bestowed around the time of Mullan’s incorporation. A lot of it probably consisted of bare hillsides, Reitz said, having been burned over in a 1910 fire that swept through the Panhandle.
The firs and pines grew back.
Meanwhile, town officials lost track of what was public property.
The city does not plan to clearcut the land, Reitz said. When people worry out loud about that, he points to a north side slope that was logged last summer. He challenges them to tell where the trees came out.
“We’ll take out the sick trees and anything over 14 inches in diameter,” he said.
Such selective logging on 100 acres could bring between $250,000 and $500,000 to the city treasury, he estimated.
The money could be used for capital improvements, such as the graders needed to maintain the mountain town’s steep streets.
The gold-sealed patent document mentions lots, not acreage. It will take awhile for Pfahl to figure out how much land the city owns. Most of it is south of town, including some 40 acres adjacent to the cemetery.
The discovery is especially timely. The town is still repairing damage done when Mill Creek went on a rampage in May.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Reitz said. “You can only tax people so much.”
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