A solitary life on the S.S. Hodge

Posted on 17 November 2001

Les Morgan enjoys living solo in a moving house on Flathead Lake

By DAVID REESE

Les Morgan's workshop is a place of fascination.

In the bowels of the 120-foot "S.S. Hodge" sternwheeler on Flathead Lake, work is done by power — manpower, mostly; there are no faxes, computers or e-mails to deal with here. The long workbenches that line the wall of his shop are filled with every imaginable kind of wrench, bolt and power tool.

Cables and come-alongs dangle on the wall. Out the window of all this greasy disorder, the waves of Flathead Lake almost lap against the Plexiglass windows. From the windows, you can look at eye level out across the rolling waves of Flathead Lake. At times, a duck or goose splashing down into view is Morgan's only companion. When his day is done, he has a hard time leaving his work behind. He lives with it. Literally.

Morgan, 57, is captain and sole occupant of the "Hodge," a paddle boat that has plied the waters of Flathead Lake since 1957. It is the largest work boat on Flathead Lake, and Morgan is hired for everything from building and repairing docks to hauling horses, tankers of salmon, even houses, around Flathead Lake. His modest living quarters — a bachelor pad complete with satellite TV — are on the second floor above the shop. The view from his living-room window is constantly changing, but it's always beautiful.

One day it could be Dayton, the next it could be Bigfork, Polson or Yellow Bay. His address depends on where he's working. Morgan has lived on the "Hodge" since 1966. He hired on with the boat's former owner and builder, Frank Hodge, when he was a 22-year-old who pulled into Polson one day in 1963 looking for work. The man cutting his hair told him, "Frank Hodge might have something for you."

Some 35 years later, Morgan is still moving from port to port like a true sailor. In 1996, he purchased the boat from Hodge, who built the ship in Polson Bay in 1957. The paddlewheels are made of rough-hewn 2-by-12s attached to two 12-foot wheels. They're powered by a chain drive connected to a 671 Detroit diesel engine, which at top speed goes 6 mph. Cables raise and drop a 2,400-pound hammer that pounds dock pilings into the ground.

For anchors, large "spuds," thick, vertical pipes that stand along the ship, are dropped into the muddy bottom of Flathead Lake to keep the boat in place while he's working — or sleeping. The craft has six rudders that guide its movement. The "Hodge" has 15 separate sealed compartments to keep it afloat. "It would take quite a bit to sink it, but I never say never," Morgan says. "When that wind comes up, it can get her rolling. I try to stay safe when it's storming." Morgan lacks only a few modern conveniences on his floating house and shop. Solar panels and a generator provide electricity, and his connection to the outside world is a cell phone. He draws his water from a single line that dangles into an open-topped tank in the shop.

Through the tank — he had to top it with a screen to keep the muskrats out — you can peer down into the emerald green of Flathead Lake. Atlantis can't be far away. "I'd rather be here than anyplace," Morgan says, gazing out the window over the 5-foot-tall captain's wheel after a day's work in Lakeside. He likes the simple life — in contrast to many of the people he works for.

The Lakeside job was for the owner of an island on Flathead Lake. Morgan was building a dock that is worth more than many people's homes. He doesn't fish, and he doesn't care to swim in Flathead's cold, clear water. "I fell in a few times, but I haven't gone in on purpose since 1967," Morgan says. He knows almost every dock, rock and bay on the water. You'd think that in all these years, Morgan would have seen the "serpent," the elusive Flathead Lake monster. "Been here 35 years, and I've never seen it," he says. "I wish I could have, but this lake is too cold for anything that big to live in."

One of his few close calls on the lake came in 1980, when, after finishing a job in Skidoo Bay, he headed back to Polson. A large thunderhead loomed on the western horizon, but Morgan figured he could beat it into Polson. He didn't. Heavy winds began blowing the boat backward, and the waves were so deep, "it looked like I could see the bottom of the lake between the troughs of waves," he said. With two satellites on board now, he says, "I really pay attention to the weather. If the wind comes up, I can move my house wherever I want. I haven't knocked a hole in her yet."

When he's not working on a dock or some other lake project, he can usually be found in his floating house/business, tinkering with tools, keeping things in order for his next job. "I never take a day off," says Morgan. "What would I do? I went through two wives, so I might as well work. 'Out here, I can go anyplace I want to. I get tired of working all the time, but I'm too old to change my ways now.

"But at least my scenery changes every week." 

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