Flumes

A log flume is a flume specifically constructed to transport lumber and logs down mountainous terrain to a sawmill by using flowing water. There were many flumes in the Sierras where these watertight trough-like channels could be built to span a long distance across chasms and down steep mountain slopes. The use of log flumes facilitated the quick and cheap transportation of logs and thereby eliminated the need for horse- or oxen-drawn carriages on dangerous mountain trails. There are hills but no mountains along the Mendocino Redwood Coast but there was one flume. Just one. A really neat one.

Brennan Creek Flume

Brennan Creek Log Flume around 1918

Early flumes were square chutes that were prone to jams that could cause damage and required constant maintenance. In 1868, James W. Haines first built the "V" shaped log flumes that allowed jammed logs to free itself (when the rising water level in the flume would push up the log). These flumes consisted of 2 boards, 2 feet wide, joined perpendicularly, and came in common use in the western United States during the late 19th century.

The longest log flume was reputedly the Kings River Flume in Sanger, California. Built in 1890 by the Kings River Lumber Company, it spanned over 62 miles (100 km) from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the lumber yard and railroad depot in Sanger. Together with a constant water supply from a nearby reservoir, the flume enabled the efficient transportation of boards of lumber over deep gorges and cliffs and thereby opened up the area now known as Sequoia National Forest for clear cutting of the giant Redwood forests. Proper operation was ensured by "flume herders" who at various locations along the flume checked the flow of lumber and water.

On occasion, despite being exceedingly dangerous, flume herders and others would ride down the flume in small crafts or boats, either for inspection or for thrills. Such rides were the precursor of the modern log-ride amusement park rides.

The story of “our” flume was told by our Train Society’s historian Louis Hough in an article he had published in August 21, 2000 edition of the Mendocino Beacon.

The stories of Flumeville and Rollerville:

Near Point Arena in the late 1860s timber men Stevens and Whitmore began to exploit about 7,000 acres of redwood timberland on the watershed of the Garcia River, some five bee-line miles inland from Point Arena. Their Garcia Mill cut 40,000 board feet per day, and in one eight month season produced eight million feet.

Garcia Mill about 1890 Garcia Mill about 1890

 

The problem they faced was getting the lumber to market. They were stymied because they could not secure a right-of-way to build a railroad to the Point Arena wharf. The grades were too steep and attempts to haul by wagon had to be abandoned. Clever Mr. Stevens, however, had a neat solution; a transportation system with water power at the heart of it.

A flume conveyed lumber or sawn railroad ties from their sawmill to near the coast. A flume under construction The flume under construction The flume was 30 inches wide and 16 inches deep. Its length is said to be six miles. Available sources are scant and sometimes contradictory and some of their facts are approximate and taken on faith. Travel down the flume took about four hours; 24 if the flume was chock full The route was well surveyed and the flume carefully built to steadily drop at a slope of an inch per rod (sixteen and one-half feet). To maintain this gradient the flume was suspended over ravines and gulches and crossed lowlands on trestles such as the coastal flats where it ended at Flumeville. (Not “white water” it still would have been a great ride for kids and we timid folks – except for those pesky boards).

Flumeville lay at the base of high, rolling tableland variously 200 to 300 feet high. This plateau separated Flumeville and Point Arena and prevented an easy haul to the wharf. To reach that shipping point meant going up onto and across the bluff, so Garcia Mill Products now had to go up the hill.

Building the flume

Building the flume

The solution, again, was water. Flume water propelled a giant water wheel 24 feet in diameter which turned a long iron shaft. The shaft drove 150 rollers on a 300 foot incline up the bluff. It rose sharply at a 45-degree angle. Each pepperwood roller was four inches in diameter with sharp stell studs jutting from it. The studs snagged a tie or board, each roller in succession pulling up the top – to a place named Rollerville – what else? (Not a fun ride?)Lumber and ties were stacked in a drying yard at Rollerville to season in the sea air or were hauled about two miles on horse-drawn wagons directly to a loading chute at Point Arena. This apron chute stood on the 200-foot north bluff of the cove, below which lay the waiting vessel some 940 feet distant. It would appear the size of a postage stamp when seen from the top.

One at a time, each tie or board slid down a gracefully curved chute to a platform built out on the water. This platform was located about three ship’s lengths north of the Point Arena wharf. A second chute carried the tie out to the vessel’s deck. There the journey ended when a crewman grabbed the tie and stowed it with the rest of the cargo.

It continued this way for 30 years, with sawn ties becoming the chief product. Messrs. B. Nickerson and S. Baker bought the operation in 1872 and ran it until 1891 when L.E. White took control. He built a steam railroad on the plateau and replaced the apron chute with a wire. White’s organization supplied the Southern Pacific Railroad with ties until 1894 when the sawmill burned and accessible timber was nearly exhausted.