“RIDE THE LOG FLUME!” CRIES THE AMUSEMENT- park advertisement. Climbing into long, narrow boats molded and colored to resemble hollowed-out logs, Americans by the thousand ride these liquid roller coasters every summer, letting the splashing water soak them as they fly downward.
This silly but exhilarating amusement ride once served a greater purpose than mere entertainment. Lumbermen built flumes of epic proportions, using water and gravity to bring some of the nation’s best wood to market. Before today’s heavy-duty trucks and roads, loggers could move this lumber out of the remote backcountry only by constructing gigantic aqueducts designed to float it miles down the sides of mountains.
Most majestic of all the flumes was the Kings River flume in Fresno County, California. Built in only 13 months, it was in use from 1890 to 1923 and eventually grew to be the longest in the world, contending with bankruptcy, fire, and death while it permitted the harvest of the world’s largest trees. It also supplied the money and water that turned California’s San Joaquin Valley into a very successful farming area.
The high Sierra Nevada was a wilderness when Hiram C. Smith and Austin D. Moore, prominent San Franciscans who ran sawmills in California and Washington, began buying up property there in the 1880s. While Smith was a true lumberman, managing and building each new operation, Moore, the majority owner, was a venture capitalist. He owned mines and ranches and lived in a sumptuous mansion in San Francisco.
According to the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, anyone could claim up to 160 acres of timberland in Washington, Oregon, California, or Nevada if he paid $2.50 per acre and swore that he had personally inspected the land. Smith and Moore, aware of the vast stands of pine, cedar, and redwood that blanketed the western slopes of the high Sierra, began accumulating timberland. Redwood makes excellent lumber, being resistant to fire, insects, and rot. With few branches, the tree rarely forms knots or imperfections. And it grows straight upward with little taper, making the lumber yield from each tree very high.
Stagecoach loads of men were hauled into the mountains to walk their claims and then immediately sell them for prices ranging from $100 to $600 (on top of the $2.50 per acre), with ample quantities of liquor thrown in. By 1888 Smith and Moore had spent more than $100,000 amassing more than 30,000 acres on the south side of the Kings River Canyon gorge.
Smith became the manager of the operation. At the time, the task of transporting the lumber down from the mountains was agonizingly slow and difficult. Individual operators sent lumberjacks into the mountains to pile the raw logs high on carts and pull them down by mule and ox teams. The trail was often so steep that the lumberjacks tied whole trees to the rear of their carts, dragging them behind to keep the wagons from sliding off the mountainside.
Smith decided there had to be a better way. At first he planned to build a railroad down Kings River Canyon from the mill to the railhead, but he abandoned the idea when he saw how steep and treacherous the chasm was. Instead he proposed building the world’s longest flume. Spanning the canyon’s gorges and cliffs, it would begin 4,500 feet above sea level and drop almost 4,200 feet as it weaved its way down to Sanger, 54 miles downstream.
Although natural rivers had been used to transport lumber for centuries, the artificial river, or flume, was almost entirely an American invention. In the virgin forests of the wild Western mountains, few navigable rivers were available, and railroads were too costly to build. Nor could horses and donkeys carry enough lumber to support large-scale operations.
Short, square-sided flumes and chutes had been used early in the century in the eastern United States, but they were no good over long distances. If a log got caught against the flume’s walls, the whole operation would quickly become clogged, with subsequent logs piling up against the first to form a dam. Water would soon begin to flow over the flume’s sides. A jam like this could tear a flume apart in minutes.
Partly inspired by the use of sluices in the Western mining industry, a Nevada lumberman named James W. Haines experimented in 1868 with a V-shaped flume. It worked better than the square-sided type because when two logs became jammed, the dam they created would make the water rise, lifting the logs into the flume’s wider part and freeing them. Soon monumental flumes began appearing throughout the Sierra Nevada, the Bitter-root Mountains, the Cascades, and the Rockies, with lengths ranging from 2 to 60 miles.
Construction of the Kings River flume began in late July 1889. The work started high in the mountains in a small valley called Millwood. From here the flume would follow Mill Flat Creek as it descended to Kings River. To provide enough water to lubricate the flume, Smith’s crew, mostly Chinese immigrants, built a small concrete-and-stone dam at the source of Mill Flat Creek. Smith also constructed two mills there, an upper and a lower, to cut raw logs into boards for their trip down the flume. Because the flume was so expensive to build, the lumbermen hoped that the lower mill, better protected from the elements, would allow them to operate year-round.
The flume was a V-shaped trough with sides almost a yard high at the upper elevations, increasing to four feet near the bottom of the mountain, where the water pressure was greater. It was built of high-grade, knot-free redwood to prevent leaks and carried by trestles of pine and cedar. Sections were assembled at the mill and floated down to the construction site. By the end of 1889 the work crews had built more than 11 miles and reached the Kings River Canyon. As the flume entered the main river canyon, the grade of the flume became quite steep. Prebuilt trestles were hauled up the mountains and assembled on the canyon’s walls, spanning hundreds of feet and rising above the river anywhere from 50 to 125 feet.
After running along the south wall of Kings River Canyon for about 19 miles, the flume crossed to the river’s north side at what was then known as Maxon’s Ranch at Trimmer Springs. To make this crossing, Smith built a wood-and-steel suspension bridge 451 feet long from tower to tower. From there on, the terrain was more level and open, so the flume followed Kings River the last 24 miles into Sanger, finishing a total run of 54 miles. Construction was completed on September 3, 1890.
Before entering the flume, logs were trimmed into planks, allowed to dry, and then clamped together in blocks 12 inches square and 18 to 28 feet long. Three to six of these bundles were then tied end to end to form a train and sent down the flume. As the train weaved its way down, “flume herders” guided it along, linking trains together to create chains as long as 1,000 feet. Fifteen hours later the train would reach the railhead at Sanger.
In its first four months the Kings River Lumber Company shipped nearly 12 million board feet off the mountain, much of which had piled up while the flume was under construction. In 1891, its first full year, it shipped almost 20 million. It wasn’t enough. The company employed more than 500 men with a monthly payroll of more than $20,000, and the flume itself had cost more than $300,000 to build, excluding the land costs. Smith and Moore also found they could not stay open year-round; in the winter months the cold and snow shut both mills down. Even in good weather the flume often had to close for maintenance. “I never want to build another flume,” Smith declared. The men who had built the monumental Kings River flume never made any money from it, and when the country was hit by a depression in 1893, Moore and Smith couldn’t pay their bills.
Rather than close the mills down, which would have put hundreds of people out of work and lost their entire investment, the partners reorganized. In the summer of 1894 they took out loans and sold off some of their stock to bring new investors into the renamed Sanger Lumber Company. By 1896, with the company’s finances still no better, Moore had sold his mansion and retired a broken man. Smith, trying desperately to salvage his investment, decided to harvest the gargantuan sequoia trees located in Converse Basin, one ridge over from Millwood.
Sequoia gigantea , of the redwood family, is scattered in about 75 glades throughout the deep woods of the Sierra Nevada. These rare and immense trees are the largest known living things. They can grow to more than 300 feet in height with a base diameter of 40 feet. The largest known sequoia, the General Sherman, is thought to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. It weighs almost 1,400 tons, with a trunk volume exceeding 52,000 cubic feet.
SMITH LOOKED AT these ancient giants and saw the salvation of his company. Each tree contained enough wood to build several dozen five-room houses. What he didn’t know was that sequoias do not make good lumber, being lightweight, brittle, and soft. Moreover, the trees’ size and weight made efficient harvesting almost impossible. With sequoia trees, only about 20 percent of the felled wood ever reached the mill. They were simply too big, sometimes shattering as they hit the ground.
Nonetheless, Smith and his new partners pressed on. They and their successors eventually cut down about 8,000 trees, most of which were more than 2,000 years old. Because of the great size of the sequoias, the mill now required the world’s largest band saw, some 90 feet long. To haul the gigantic logs to the mill, train tracks were laid from the flume head into Converse Basin, and a locomotive was disassembled and carted there by mule.
The flume herders traveled the flume’s entire length to inspect it for problems, and other people, including reporters and company officials, were occasionally allowed to make the wet, thunderous trip. Those without a taste for danger were restricted to the gentler sections of the route. Some points of the ride were so steep that the boat reached speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour, pushing much of the water from the flume. The flume boat would then screech to a halt. When the flow finally caught up, the water lifted the boat into the air to rocket it onward. One time two men were flung free, their luggage floating down to Sanger without them. After a six- to eight-hour ride, the thrill seekers would disembark at Kings River, taking either a raft or a stagecoach back to Sanger. One rider called the trip “one of the greatest pleasures in the world.”
Despite all his efforts, by 1897 Smith was bankrupt. He went on to manage lumber operations in other parts of California, as well as in Brazil, Mexico, and British Columbia. The Sanger Lumber Company was taken over by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, its chief creditor, which for eight years struggled to make a profit. In 1905 a group of Michigan capitalists led by Thomas Hume and Ira Bennett bought the assets.
HUME AND BENNETT decided to relocate the flume’s mill away from the giant sequoias to a new stand of ordinary pine farther upstream. Extending the flume to this new location made it more than 71 miles in length, the world’s longest. The total drop in elevation was now just less than a mile. To supply additional water, a new dam was built, designed by the jack-of-all-trades engineer John Eastwood. Instead of creating a solid concrete dam, Eastwood designed a radical multiarched structure, to save time and money in construction. Hume Dam, 677 feet long and 61 feet high at its highest point, took only 114 days to build.
For 20 years the company tried and failed to turn a profit. After a 1917 fire destroyed the mills at Hume Eake, the lumber operation never recovered, and when a 1926 forest fire destroyed more than six miles of flume in the most remote part of Kings River Canyon, the entire operation finally ended.
Of the flume itself nothing now remains, though the Sanger Historical Society’s Sanger Depot Museum, in downtown Sanger, has a model on display. Of the mill and logging operation, only Hume Dam endures. The lake behind it is now recreational, surrounded by private and public campgrounds in the midst of second-growth pine and redwood forests. Today logging companies use trucks, railroads, and even helicopters to transport their lumber, and the only operating flumes in existence are those in America’s amusement parks. Though some turn-of-the-century parks at Coney Island had short “shoot-the-chutes”— straight water-slides into the ocean or pools—the log-flume ride started appearing only in the early 1960s. In 1963 Six Flags Over Texas introduced the world’s first rollercoaster-type log-flume ride. Soon theme parks across the country were competing to build bigger and more exciting flume rides, duplicating the experience of the Western loggers three-quarters of a century earlier.
The story of the Kings River flume has been called “the greatest orgy of destructive lumbering in the history of the world” and “a story of greed and mass destruction of a mighty forest.” This seems unfair. The gigantic engineering project of these lumbermen helped build Sanger and much of east-central California. When Smith and Moore decided to build the downstream terminus of the flume in Sanger, land values skyrocketed, and in less than a year a city of 2,000 people emerged. And the flume brought the town more than just logs. Water from the flume irrigated the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, helping make it one of the world’s richest farming communities.
The lumbermen’s heroic effort also led to the creation of two national parks, Kings River and Sequoia. Many great trees were lost, but the lumbermen hardly cut down every one. The Boole tree, for example, was named after Frank Boole, the general manager for the lumber operation when the Canadian Bank of Commerce operated the flume. Though the ordinary redwoods that surrounded it were cut, this leviathan, 269 feet tall and 112 feet in circumference, was left untouched by the lumber company. George Hume, Thomas Hume’s son and the manager of the lumbering operation for almost 20 years, purposely avoided cutting sequoias. “I agree myself that these magnificent trees should be preserved,” he once wrote.
While Smith and Moore’s dreams of wealth came to naught and their majestic engineering achievement has vanished, their efforts were instrumental in developing central California. They also made it possible for us to stand and gawk at the sequoias, trees so large that even lumbermen didn’t want to pull them down.