Lake Tahoe – “The Lake of the Sky,” Part IV – Down Come the Trees

Feeding the Teams along the Trail

Feeding the Teams along the Trail (1865)

Within just a short period after the 1859 discovery of silver in the Virginia Mountains of Nevada, there were over one-hundred way stations along the road between Placerville and Virginia City.

Freight wagons by the hundreds were lined up end to end along what would be called the “Bonanza Road” day and night, and the word was that if you got out of line, you might not get back in for hours or even days. This traffic would continue until the mid-1860s when the western portion of the transcontinental railroad would be completed from Sacramento to Truckee and then Reno.

The huge wagons and their teams of 16 or more horses or mules which passed by the south end of the lake on their way to Virginia City, or what was often called the Comstock Lode, did some damage to what had been quite a pristine area as trees had to be cut for roads and dirt from the roads washed into the lake. However, that was small compared to what would happen over the next few decades.

The rich deposits of silver and gold in Virginia City lay in the mountains and had to be reached by tunneling. The various shafts, drifts, and adits in the soft, crumbling earth were unstable and unsafe for miners unless shored up with timber. The Virginia Mountains had very few trees suitable for timber, but the mountains around Lake Tahoe were a different story.

The forests on the Nevada side of the Sierra Nevada were soon being cut and then the hungry sawyers and mills moved over the summit and into the Lake Tahoe basin’s thousands of acres of virgin forests, just waiting to be harvested. And, harvest them they did.

In 1860, the first sawmill in the Tahoe Basin had been established by Robert Woodburn, about two miles northeast of Yank’s Station. Using power from a small overshot water wheel on Trout Creek that powered a single blade saw, he produced lumber and planking for buildings near the Lake.

Mills like Woodburn’s could produce the shingles and lumber needed at the mines, but not the huge, straight timbers fifteen to twenty feet long and twelve inches square that they interlocked to hold up the crumbling roofs of the tunnels.

In 1861, Augustus Pray build the first sawmill on the eastern shore of the lake. Using water from Glen Brook, he was able to set up an overshot wheel thirty-five feet in diameter. This produced enough power to run double circular saws, a muller, and edger and a shingle saw.

Twelve hands worked the mill and produced ten thousand board feet a day, including the huge timbers that the mines needed. Once cut, the lumber was put between the huge wheels of a lumber hauler and taken to the main road where it was then loaded on wagons for the long trip to Spooner’s Camp at the summit, and then down the mountains and across the desert to Carson City and the mines at Virginia City.

Slow and tedious, this system was improved first in 1867 when a flume system was built and in 1870 when the Virginia and Truckee Railroad began operation.

In 1863, another mill, this time steam powered, was built at Glenbrook by Goff and Morrill about a mile from Pray’s mill. To keep up with the competition, Pray would soon convert his mill to steam power and by the summer of 1875, four mills were in operation at the Glenbrook location, the last once closing in 1894.

In the meantime, other mills were being built at both ends of the lake and soon, all land that included timber rights was claimed by individuals, financiers and mining or banking syndicates. In spite of the fact that the trees had to be cut down with hand saws and axes, they started coming down, first by the hundreds and then thousands.

To get wood to the mines, boats and barges became the major carriers of shingles and cordwood across the lake to the shipping point at Glenwood, but they didn’t carry the huge logs. These were gathered together in huge “log booms” and towed to the Glenbrook area by steam tugs.

Glenbrook was not only the area with the mills, but the closest “port” on the lake to the mines.

The first V-flumes to carry trees from the tops of the mountains to the lake, were invented by J. W. Haines, in 1867. In was a variation on the box flumes built by the miners, but consisted of two sturdy planks connected in a “V.”

Where available, running water was used to lubricate the flume and where water wasn’t available, the flume was greased. According to eyewitnesses, the huge logs slid down the flumes at great speed, hitting the lake with the noise of a cannon shot and creating a water plume of twenty feet or more.  Because only straight trees would easily travel in the flume, the crooked tops of trees were often left to rot while the straighter trunks went down the flume. This also meant that not all the trees were taken, but only the straight ones that the mines had ordered.

Other trees remained because the forward looking D. L. Bliss, who owned Tahoe & Carson Lumber & Fluming Company with Hume Yerington, would not let any trees less than fifteen inches at the base be cut, in order to preserve the forests.

Not all trees cut in the Tahoe Basin were milled there, some being sent to the mines as logs. To accomplish this easily, in 1873, Bliss and Yerington’s Tahoe & Carson Lumber & Fluming Company built a twelve-mile long flume from the summit above Glenbrook to Carson City. That was followed by a fifteen-mile long flume built by Flood & Fair’s Bonanza Company that passed through a tunnel and terminated at the Carson City end of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.

Riding the Flume

Riding the Flume

This later flume became famous in 1875 when the owners, one of their carpenters and a reporter from the New York Tribune named H. J. Ramsdell, all of whom should have known better, participated in “The Great Flume Ride” down the mountain in two “V” shaped “boats” known as “pig troughs.” They survived, but barely.

Sources for this story include: “ Atlas of California” , by Donley, Allan, Caro and Patton (1979); “ California Place Names” , by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “ The Mountain Sea” , by Lyndall Landauer (1996); “ Lakes of California” , by Don Baxter (1972); “ Sierra-Nevada Lakes” , by George and Bliss Hinkle (1949); “ Sierra Stories – True Tales of Tahoe” , volumes 1 & 2, by Mark McLaughlin 1997-1998): “ History of El Dorado County” , by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat.

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