Log flume

Last updated
A sawmill with log flume, Cascade Range, USA Sawmill 19th century.jpg
A sawmill with log flume, Cascade Range, USA

A log flume is a watertight flume constructed to transport lumber and logs down mountainous terrain using flowing water. Flumes replaced horse- or oxen-drawn carriages on dangerous mountain trails in the late 19th century. Logging operations preferred flumes whenever a reliable source of water was available. Flumes were cheaper to build and operate than logging railroads. They could span long distances across chasms with more lightweight trestles.


Flumes remained in widespread use through the early 20th century. The logging truck replaced both the logging railroad and the flume after WWII. Today, log flumes remain in the popular imagination as amusement park rides. [1]


J.W. Haines built the first successful lumber flume in 1859. The v-shaped trough brought a half-million feet of lumber daily from the eastern Sierra Nevada to the Comstock Lode. The 15 miles (24 km) route was between Lake Tahoe and Reno, terminating at the Virginia and Truckee Railroad terminus in Washoe Valley. [2] Soon, log flumes spread across the mountains of the western United States as artificial rivers that brought lumber to market. [3]

Flume Heads

Log flumes need a steady supply of water. Often, a log pond or artificial reservoir serves this purpose. [4] :16 The head directs the flow of water into the top of the flume. Flume boxes are built tight with lumber free of knots to prevent leaks. Feeder troughs resupply water on long routes. [1] :410

Logging flumes were only needed in semi-arid regions without rivers or navigable streams. As a result, water rights were often difficult to secure. Often, flumes moved water from one drainage basin to another, with rights settled in court. [5]

Flume Construction

The high trestle on the Sanger Flume was over 300 feet (91 m) feet tall. High-Trestle-Sanger-Flume.jpg
The high trestle on the Sanger Flume was over 300 feet (91 m) feet tall.

Flume routes were surveyed by engineers using the same methods as a railroad survey. However, flumes had several advantages to logging railroads in steep terrain. They could span gulches using much lighter trestles. And they took up less space, fitting inside narrower canyons where there wasn’t room for a railroad. The main disadvantage of the light construction was they were damaged more easily by fire, floods, wind, and falling timber. But they could be repaired more cheaply. [1] :394

Flume sites were mostly in rough, undeveloped wilderness. Unlike railroad construction, this required lumber and supplies to be carried in by hand. Flume boxes and trestles were built onsite. Construction crews included six to eight workers. On trestles, four worked aloft continuously. One low man handled and sent up the lumber.

Working on the flume was a dangerous job. Occupational fatality statistics are unavailable. But reports suggest that falls resulted in many injuries and deaths. [6]

Square lumber was often provided by a temporary, portable sawmill erected at the head of the flume. Other times, round timber trestles of 8 inches (20 cm) to 12 inches (30 cm) diameter were cut and finished from along the route.

Some trestles achieved staggering heights to maintain a desirable grade. Three percent was ideal for a straight flume. Sometimes grades of up to 75 percent were used on short stretches. The steeper the grade the more gradual the curves had to be, or else lumber would jam or go over the sides. The maximum curve was 8 degrees. [1] :395–396

Box Flumes

Flume box cross section. Log Flume Box Cross Section Box for Small Logs.jpg
Flume box cross section.

Early logging flumes were square wooden chutes known as box flumes. These were prone to jams that could cause damage and required constant maintenance. They were also costly to build. A square box carries much more water compared to a V-shaped flume. The greater weight of the water required a sturdier structure, especially heavier trestles. [1] :399


In 1867, James W. Haines first built the "V"-shaped log flumes that allowed a jammed log to free itself as the rising water level in the flume pushed it up. These efficient flumes consisted of two boards, 2 feet (0.61 m) wide and 16 feet (4.9 m) feet long, joined perpendicularly, and came in common use in the western United States during the late 19th century. [7]

Box flumes were not made obsolete. They continued to be built when a large volume of water was desired for a secondary use, such as irrigation. Box flumes were also more capable of handling materials uneven in size and weight simultaneously. Lumber, pulpwood, shingle bolts, and whole logs move at different speeds and were prone to double-up in a V-flume’s low grades and curves. Finally, box flumes could move an unprecedented amount of material, up to a maximum capacity of 300,000 board feet (710 m3), or three times as great as the maximum for a V-flume. [1] :400

Flume Herders

Proper operation was ensured by "flume herders" who at various locations along the flume checked the flow of lumber and water. [8] On longer flumes, flume herders lived in permanent flume houses along the route. Light signals, and later telephone lines, enabled communication up and down the line.

Flume Boats

On occasion, despite it being exceedingly dangerous, flume herders and others would ride down the flume in small craft or boats, either for inspection or for thrills. [9] Such rides were the precursor of the modern log-ride amusement park attractions. [8] [10]

Every flume boat was one of a kind. But they shared common design characteristics. They were V-shaped to fit the flume trough. An open front allowed water in for stability in the curves. A closed back allowed water to push the craft forward. Flat boards across the top created a platform for passengers and cargo. [11] [9] :65

Top speed depended on the grade of the flume. Flume boats on the Sanger Lumber Company flume, the "fastest chute in the world," traveled at 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). Boats traveled over steep trestles and curves with precipitous drops on either side without brakes or other means to slow the craft. Passengers described the sensation like "rushing through space suspended between earth and sky." [12]

Flume Terminals

There are a variety of flume terminals. The kind of terminal depends on the materials the flume transports and its disposal at the end point of a flume.

An elephant terminal splits from a central trunk into many forked branches. From there, logs are diverted into open branches by closing branches not in use. Logs collect at the end of the terminal in a loose pile. Other terminals shoot logs onto rollers that move them onto loading platforms. The water from the flume drives a waterwheel that drives the rollers. This arrangement works well with heavy railroad crossties or mining timbers. [1] :405

Longest Flumes

In the late 19th century, three rival California lumber companies built log flumes of unprecedented and nearly identical length. Each served the same purpose; to link their logging operations in the Sierra Nevada to railroad shipping depots in the San Joaquin Valley.

All three were purported to be "world’s longest flume." However, some measurements may have been exaggerated or subject to inaccurate surveying methods. Contemporary attempts at confirmation are inconclusive.

Logging trucks started to replace flumes in the 1910s. Trucks offered mobility, lower operating costs, and did not rely on the availability of water. Many of the great flumes fell into disrepair and were salvaged for lumber. [6] By 1984, only one lumber flume was operating in the United States. [6] :158 The Broughton Lumber flume was a 9 mile V-flume that transported rough-sawn lumber from Willard, Washington to a finishing mill in Hood, just west of the town of Underwood. The flume closed down on December 19, 1986. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hume Lake</span> Body of water

Hume Lake is a reservoir in the Sierra Nevada, within Sequoia National Forest and Fresno County, central California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nelder Grove</span> Giant sequoia grove in Madera County, California, United States

Nelder Grove, formerly known as Fresno Grove when it was within a much larger 19th-century Fresno County, is a Giant sequoia grove located in the western Sierra Nevada within the Sierra National Forest, in Madera County, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">California Western Railroad</span> A heritage railroad in Mendocino County, California (USA), running from Fort Bragg to Willits

The California Western Railroad, AKA Mendocino Railway popularly called the Skunk Train, is a rail freight and heritage railroad transport railway in Mendocino County, California, United States, running from the railroad's headquarters in the coastal town of Fort Bragg to the interchange with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad at Willits.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bass Lake (Madera County, California)</span> Lake

Bass Lake is located in the Sierra National Forest, of Madera County, California, approximately 14 mi (23 km) south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park. The lake is approximately four miles long and one-half mile wide.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad</span>

The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad (YMSPRR) is a historic 3 ft narrow gauge railroad with two operating steam train locomotives located near Fish Camp, California, in the Sierra National Forest near the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Rudy Stauffer organized the YMSPRR in 1961, utilizing historic railroad track, rolling stock and locomotives to construct a tourist line along the historic route of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shaver Lake</span> Body of water

Shaver Lake is an artificial lake on Stevenson Creek, in the Sierra National Forest of Fresno County, California. At elevation 5,500 ft (1,700 m), several smaller streams also flow into the lake, and it receives water from the tunnels of Southern California Edison's Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. The town Shaver Lake is located on its south-west shore.

The Shaver Lake Railroad was a standard gauge logging railroad that operated in the Sierra Nevada of Fresno County, California. The line was abandoned in 1927.

The San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad (SJ&E) was a standard gauge common carrier railroad that operated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Fresno County in the U.S. state of California. The line was abandoned in 1933. The railroad hauled primarily lumber and agricultural products.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Minarets and Western Railway</span>

The Minarets and Western Railway was a Class II common carrier that operated in Fresno County, California, from 1921 to 1933. The railway was owned by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company and was built the same year the lumber company was incorporated so that it could haul timber from the forest near Minarets to its sawmill at Pinedale. The southern portion of the line was operated with joint trackage rights with Southern Pacific.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway</span>

The Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway was a scenic tourist railway operating between Mill Valley and the east peak of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California, covering a distance of 8.19 miles (13.18 km), with a 2.88-mile (4.63 km) spur line to the Muir Woods. The railroad was incorporated in January 1896, and closed in the summer of 1930. Originally planned as a 4 ft 8+12 instandard gauge electric trolley line, the railroad was powered by a succession of geared steam locomotives. Billed as the "Crookedest Railroad in the World," the line was renowned for its steep and serpentine route, winding through picturesque terrain to a mountaintop tavern providing first-class hospitality and panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite its popularity, the railway met its demise following a fire in 1929, and dwindling ridership when the automobile could finally drive to Tamalpais' summit.

Hume is an unincorporated community in Fresno County, California. It is located 50 miles (80 km) east of Fresno, at an elevation of 5344 feet. Hume is located in the 93628 ZIP Code, in area code 559.

The Caspar, South Fork & Eastern Railroad provided transportation for the Caspar Lumber Company in Mendocino County, California. The railroad operated the first steam locomotive on the coast of Mendocino County in 1875. Caspar Lumber Company lands became Jackson Demonstration State Forest in 1955, named for Caspar Lumber Company founder, Jacob Green Jackson.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Log pond</span>

A log pond is a small natural lake or reservoir used for storage of wooden logs in readiness for milling at a sawmill. Although some mill ponds served this purpose for water-powered sawmills, steam-powered sawmills used log ponds for transportation of logs near the mill; and did not require the elevation drop of watermill reservoirs.

The Hume-Bennett Lumber Company was a logging operation located in the Sequoia National Forest. It was founded in the early 1900s to store and transport logs. The company closed in 1924 and was purchased by the federal government in 1935.

Mendocino Lumber Company operated a sawmill on Big River near the town of Mendocino, California. The sawmill began operation in 1853 as the Redwood Lumber Manufacturing Company, and changed ownership several times before cutting its final logs in 1938. The sawmill site became part of the Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands State Park where a few features of the mill and its associated forest railway are still visible along the longest undeveloped estuary in northern California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company</span>

The Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company (C&TL&F) was formed to move lumber from trees growing along the shore of Lake Tahoe to the silver mines of the Comstock Lode. Between 1872 and 1898 C&TL&F transferred 750 million board foot of lumber logged from 80,000 acres (32,000 ha) of virgin timberland.

The Michigan-California Lumber Company was an early 20th-century Ponderosa and Sugar pine logging operation in the Sierra Nevada. It is best remembered for the Shay locomotives used to move logs to the sawmill.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Madera Sugar Pine Company</span> Defunct logging company in Madera County, California, US

The Madera Sugar Pine Company was a late 19th-century and early 20th-century Ponderosa and Sugar pine logging operation in the Sierra Nevada. Together with its predecessors, Madera Sugar Pine was known for operating the first log flume and logging railroad in the southern Sierra and for the early adoption of the Steam Donkey engine in commercial logging.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sugar Pine Lumber Company</span> Defunct logging company in Madera and Fresno County, California, US

The Sugar Pine Lumber Company was an early 20th century logging operation and railroad in the Sierra Nevada. Unable to secure water rights to build a log flume, the company operated the “crookedest railroad ever built." They later developed the Minarets-type locomotive, the largest and most powerful saddle tank locomotive ever made. The company was also a pioneer in the electrification of logging where newly plentiful hydroelectric power replaced the widespread use of steam engines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yosemite Lumber Company</span> Defunct logging company in Yosemite National Park, California, US

The Yosemite Lumber Company was an early 20th century Sugar Pine and White Pine logging operation in the Sierra Nevada. The company built the steepest logging incline ever, a 3,100 feet (940 m) route that tied the high-country timber tracts in Yosemite National Park to the low-lying Yosemite Valley Railroad running alongside the Merced River. From there, the logs went by rail to the company’s sawmill at Merced Falls, about fifty-four miles west of El Portal.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Bryant, Ralph Clement (1913). Logging: The Principles and General Methods of Operation in the United States (First ed.). New York: Wiley and Sons. p. 399.
  2. Sagan, Bob (January–February 2017). "Five Fools on a Flume". Nevada Magazine. Retrieved November 6, 2022.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: date format (link)
  3. Zimmerman, Robert (Fall 1998). "Log Flume". American Heritage's Invention & Technology. Retrieved November 19, 2022.
  4. 1 2 Johnston, Hank (1968). Thunder in the Mountains: The Life and Times of Madera Sugar Pine (Second Edition (Revised) ed.). Costa Mesa, Calif.: Stauffer Publishing. ISBN   0-87046-017-X. OCLC   239958.
  5. "Decision Goes Against Hite. Loses the Big Suit Over the Water Rights of Big Creek. Judge Corcoran of Mariposa Renders Judgment for Defendants". San Francisco Call. San Francisco, California. October 26, 1901. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "A look back at the history of the Valley's log flumes". ABC 30 (KFSN). Fresno, California. Retrieved November 19, 2022.
  7. Fregulia, Carolyn (2008). Logging in the Central Sierra. Arcadia Publishing. p. 50. ISBN   978-0-7385-5816-5.
  8. 1 2 "The Kings River Flume". Sanger Depot Museum. Archived from the original on 2012-08-30. Retrieved 2012-01-13.
  9. 1 2 3 Johnston, Hank (1996). They Felled the Redwoods: A Saga of Rails and Flumes in the High Sierra. Fish Camp, California: Stauffer Publishing. p. 107. ISBN   0-87046-003-X.
  10. Mark McLaughlin. "Dare to Shoot the Flume". Mic Mac Media. Retrieved 2010-03-04.
  11. "Sailing Down a Flume: A Remarkable Voyage from the Snow Line of the Sierras. A drop of 250 Yards with a Grade of 1200 Feet to the Mile. Shooting Through the Air". Placer Herald. Placer, California. October 15, 1892. Retrieved November 13, 2022.
  12. "Shooting the Fastest Chute in the World". San Francisco Call. San Francisco, California. September 10, 1911. Retrieved November 13, 2022.
  13. 1 2 Johnston, Hank (1997). The Whistles Blow No More. Stauffer Publishing. ISBN   0-87046-067-6.
  14. Fresno Flats Historical Village and Park (Museum display). Oakhurst, CA: Madera County Historical Society. 2022.
  15. "The Broughton Lumber Flume: American Engineering Achievement". May 31, 2009. Retrieved November 19, 2022.