Dare to shoot the Flume

Every summer, 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. Although a ride along the Flume Trail can stir the heart, the real excitement associated with flumes ended more than a century ago.


Two men shooting a flume. | Harper’s Illustrated

The first V-shaped flume was built in 1869 by James W. Haines. This innovative flume was rigged to move cut lumber efficiently down from the Carson Range on the eastern margin of the Tahoe Basin to the valley floor where it could be hauled to the bustling Comstock mines. A relatively inexpensive alternative to the traditional method of constructing roads for slow, horse-drawn wagons, water flumes revolutionized the transportation of lumber throughout the mountains of western Nevada and the Sierra. Haines patented the V-shaped flume in 1870, but a U.S. District Court later decreed that so many lumber companies had constructed them in the years following, that Haines had lost his right to financially benefit as the original inventor.

“The V-shaped flume proved so effective at delivering lumber that by 1879, there were 10 of them operating in the Sierra. … In 1879 alone, loggers flumed more than 33 million board feet of lumber and milled timber out of the mountains.”

The long, winding flumes were built in sections. Each section consisted of two boards 16-feet long, 2 feet wide and 1.5 inches thick. The planks were joined together at a 90-degree angle. They were built tight enough to hold water and strong enough to carry heavy logs up to 40-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. If the sliding boards lodged against an obstruction, the flowing water backed up, raising the wood along the slanting sides and freeing it. The same result was not accomplished in the more traditional U-shaped flume, with its boxlike perpendicular sides.

The V-shaped flume proved so effective at delivering lumber that by 1879, there were 10 of them operating in the Sierra. They totaled more than 80 miles in length. The longest flume snaked its way through the mountains for nearly 25 miles. In 1879 alone, loggers flumed more than 33 million board feet of lumber and milled timber out of the mountains.

One of the most spectacular flumes was owned by the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. Elevated on elaborate wooden trestles, the flume had its upper terminus in the mountains north of Lake Tahoe. It wound its way for 15 miles before ending at Huffaker’s Station lumberyard near the Virginia & Truckee Railroad tracks. Located 10 miles south of Reno, the lumberyard owned by Granville Huffaker employed 500 men in 1876. The train completed the operation by hauling the valuable lumber up to the Comstock mines.

An engineering marvel in its day, this massive flume was owned jointly by four wealthy Comstock moguls: James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William O’Brien, also known as the Bonanza Kings. Called the Bonanza V Flume, it took 2 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 10 weeks to complete. Construction costs were $250,000. It effectively transported 500,000 board feet of lumber per day, which is about 500 cords of wood. It took the muscle and sweat of 2,000 horses and oxen to do the same job.

Today’s mountain bikers enjoy the exhilarating descent down from the 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, mining magnate John Mackay suggested Ramsdell visit to his company’s flume. Two days later, Ramsdell met with Mackay’s partners, James Fair and James Flood, in Virginia City. Joining them on the trip was John Hereford, the contractor who built the big flume. Flood and Fair challenged Ramsdell to join them for a ride down the flume by hog trough. Hog troughs were crude boats, V-shaped like the flume and 16 feet long. The 200-pound reporter could not believe what he was hearing, but he thought, “If men worth 25 to 30 million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine which is not worth half as much.” For a bit of comfort, two small boards were installed as seats.

The men were well dressed, but not concerned about their clothes. It was determined that Ramsdell would join Fair in the first boat with Flood and Hereford in the second. While three stout workmen held the boat over the rushing current, the daring city slickers 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 a 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 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.

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. The tangled confusion of splintered wood and terrified men slid 15 miles in just 35 minutes, saving themselves a whole day of traveling by horse-drawn carriage.

Reporter Ramsdell was able to write a good story, but his main satisfaction came from the fact that his wealthy hosts were so battered and sore, they could not get out of bed the next day.



Flume Trail offers breathtaking views