Chapter Seven: Dare to Shoot the Flume
Every year, mountain bikers flock to Lake Tahoe's East Shore, eager to ride the old Flume Trail. Littered with wooden planks from a 19th century water flume, this narrow pathway hugs the steep west slope of the Carson Range. It challenges the courage and endurance of adventuresome cyclists. The ride also rewards the brave with some of Lake Tahoe's most spectacular views. Although a ride along the Flume Trail can stir the heart, the real excitement associated with flumes ended more than a century ago.
Nevada's popular "V flume," so named because it is shaped like the letter "V", was first built by James W. Haines, in 1869. Haines, who later became a Douglas County State Senator, rigged the first V flume to move timber down out of the Carson Range. This inexpensive alternative to the traditional method of constructing roads for horse-drawn wagons, revolutionized the transportation of lumber in western Nevada.
Over the years, many other lumber companies constructed their own flumes to transport water and lumber. Historic records indicate Haines later sued in United States District Court to determine his right to benefit as inventor of the V flume, having patented it on September 20, 1870. However, so many others testified that they had built a flume themselves, Haines lost the case.
The long, winding flumes were built in sections. Each section consisted of two boards 16 feet-long, each two feet wide and one and a half inches thick. The planks were joined together at a ninety degree angle. They were built tight enough to hold water and strong enough to carry heavy logs up to forty feet long. High elaborate trestles supported the flume down inaccessible canyons and across steep-sided chasms, moving the timber quickly and cheaply down the mountainside.
The flume's V-shape had an important purpose. It is designed so that if the sliding lumber lodges onto something, the flowing water will back up, raise the wood along the slanting sides, and free it. The same efficacy is not accomplished in the more traditional U-shaped flume, with its box-like perpendicular sides. In some of the steeper and more arid areas, loggers used dry chutes to move the timber. These were made of cut-out logs, firmly staked together and greased daily. The dry chutes were shorter than the water flumes, but the big logs flashed down so quickly that the friction often produced a bright trail of sparks, fire and smoke.
Once the flumes were built, the sawmills were relocated higher into the mountains, closer to the timber. The flume operation became the most efficient and important transport system utilized to move the wood down to the Virginia City Comstock mines. With the discovery of the Crown Point Bonanza in 1871, followed by other large silver strikes, the demand for lumber increased dramatically.
Unlike the shallow placer gold deposits in the California foothills, the silver in Nevada was found in deep-running veins of decomposed quartz. Some of the silver veins were sixty-feet wide. No miner or engineer had ever seen a lode so pure, or so thick, and that created a problem. No one knew how to mine the silver safely. The rich ore bodies were so soft that no explosives were needed, only a miner's pick. But when the miners tried to dig into the sandy matrix, the walls and ceiling came crashing down on them.
The work was too dangerous and the mines fell silent. Comstock mining engineers could only scratch their heads and ponder the problem. Finally, Philip Deidesheimer, an engineer from Germany, came up with a solution. He invented a wooden support system that used square sets of lumber to create protective cubes. The men could mine the ledges safely within these timbered structures. As the ore was excavated, more square sets were added, until the interior of Mount Davidson resembled the steel-beamed interior skeleton of a modern day skyscraper.
Deidesheimer's ingenious design spelled success for the Silver Kings, but it meant annihilation for the Sierra's majestic pine forest. As additional ore bodies were discovered, more wood was needed to supply the ever expanding mining operations. Then, on October 26, 1875, most of Virginia City, as well as the hoisting works of the principal mines, burned to the ground. The residents and business owners re-built their boomtown with larger buildings, which consumed even more wood. In order to satisfy the high demand for timber, lumber companies hired hundreds of French Canadian, Italian and Chinese laborers to chop wood from April to November. Three new lumber mills were built at Glenbrook, on Lake Tahoe, and experienced mill crews were imported from Maine to operate them.
The V flume proved so effective at delivering the lumber, that by 1879, there were ten of them operating in the Sierra. The longest Sierra flume snaked its way through the mountains for nearly 25 miles. They totaled more than eighty miles in length. In that year alone, loggers flumed more than 33 million feet of lumber. Lumberjacks also floated small wooden boxes, called Go Devils in the flumes. These V-shaped boxes carried tools, supplies and sometimes lunch, from worker to worker.
One of the most spectacular flumes was owned by the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. Built on an elaborate wooden trestle, the flume had its upper terminus high in the mountains, north of Lake Tahoe. This engineering masterpiece wound its way for fifteen miles before ending at Huffaker's Station, near the Virginia & Truckee railroad tracks. Located ten miles south of Reno, Granville Huffaker employed 500 men in 1876. The train completed the work by hauling the valuable timber up to the Comstock mines.
An engineering marvel in its day, this massive flume was owned jointly by Comstock moguls - James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William O'Brien. Called the Bonanza V flume, it took two million feet of timber and 56,000 pounds of nails to build. Designed and constructed by engineer, John Hereford and his crews, the mammoth project required only ten weeks to build. Construction costs were $250,000. It effectively transported 500,000 feet of lumber per day, which is about 500 cords of wood. It took the sweat and muscle of 2,000 horses to do the same job.
Twentieth century mountain bikers may enjoy the exhilarating descent down from the old Flume Trail, but they really don't know what a wild ride is.
In 1875, an East Coast newspaperman was treated to the trip of a lifetime. H.J. Ramsdell, a New York Tribune reporter, was assigned to Virginia City to report on the Comstock. He got more of a story than he bargained for.
While touring the various mining works, Ramsdell asked how the timber was transported out of the mountains. Mining magnate John Mackay suggested a visit to the Bonanza V flume. Two days later, Ramsdell met with James Fair and James Flood in Virginia City. Joining them on the trip was John Hereford, the contractor who built the big flume. The four men left in two buggies, crossed Washoe Valley, and headed for the timber country north of Tahoe.
Once there, Ramsdell climbed to the top of the trestle-work to see the huge logs roar down the flume. "It was like the rushing of a herd of buffalo." he wrote. "I preferred to view the flume, in active working, from a distance."
After he returned to the main group, Mr. Flood and Mr. Fair challenged Ramsdell to join them in a trip down the flume by hog trough. Hog troughs were crude boats, V-shaped like the flume and sixteen feet long. The 200-pound city reporter could not believe what he was hearing, but he thought that, "...if men worth 25 or 30 million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine which is not worth half as much."
The men were well-dressed, but not concerned about their clothes or their lives. It was determined that Ramsdell would join Fair in the first boat with Flood and Hereford in the second. For a bit of comfort, two small boards were installed as seats. At the last minute, Fair decided the party should take along someone who knew something about the flume. There were fifty millhands and lumberjacks standing around, so Fair asked for volunteers. Only one man responded to the call, a red-faced carpenter who took more kindly to drinking whiskey than to working at his bench.
While three stout workmen held the boat over the rushing current, Ramsdell, Fair and the carpenter were told to jump in as soon as the boat was dropped. They were also told to hang on to their hats. One experienced flume shooter warned, "A flume has no element of safety. You cannot stop, you cannot lessen your speed; you have only to sit still, shut your eyes, say your prayers, take all the water that comes...and wait for eternity."
The boat was lowered and at the critical moment the carpenter jumped into the front of the boat, Ramsdell into the stern and Fair into the middle. Suddenly they were off. When the terrified reporter finally opened his eyes, they were already streaking down the mountainside. The trestle was 70 feet high in some places; and, since Ramsdell was lying down, he could see only the aerial flume stretching for miles ahead. Ramsdell tried to judge their speed by watching the hills. "Every object I placed my eye on was gone before I could clearly see what it was," he recalled, "Mountains passed like visions and shadows," and it seemed that they would suffocate from the force of the wind. Suddenly, the first boat hit an obstruction and the drunk carpenter was sent sprawling into the flume, ten feet ahead.
Within seconds Fair dragged the workman back into the boat, but he smashed his hand in the process. "Minutes seemed hours," Ramsdell said later, "I was scared almost out of reason."
Meanwhile, the pig-trough carrying Flood and Hereford was making better time. This second boat crashed into the first and Flood was thrown into the rushing water. The rest of the men hung on for dear life. This confusion of splintered boats and bodies slid the rest of the way to the bottom of the flume. The frightened men fell fifteen miles in just thirty-five minutes, but saved themselves a whole day of traveling by horse-drawn carriage!
When the flume finally leveled out and the men could exit the chute, they were more dead than alive. The carpenter quickly headed to the nearest saloon for a shot of tarantula juice. James Flood declared that he would not shoot a flume again for all the silver in the Consolidated-Virginia mine. James Fair proclaimed that, "I will never again place myself on an equality with timber."
Reporter Ramsdell was able to write a good story, but his main satisfaction came from the fact that his hosts were so battered and sore, they could not get out of bed the next day.
Chapter Seven: Selected Sources