A look back at the history of the Valley's log flumes

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of an era in Fresno County.

It was a century ago that the last log flume brought lumber out of the high Sierra to the Valley. The flumes made the Central Valley a major lumber producing area, and created mill towns like Clovis, Sanger and Madera.

Back in the late 1800s around here, timber was king. Trees from the surrounding forest were cut down and brought here to Shaver Lake, which was then a pond. There was a sawmill, it's under the water now, where the logs were processed.

The remains of the Shaver sawmill were briefly revealed a couple of years ago when the lake was drained for dam repairs. A century ago, this is where trees were turned into rough cut boards, and sent on their way to Clovis.

Now, how the lumber got there is pretty amazing. It was all sent down a wooden log flume, kind of like a giant waterslide that dropped from 5,000 feet in elevation to near sea level. Forty-two miles long, the ride, took about six hours.

Bud Olson runs the Museum in Tollhouse, and knows all about flumes.

"Flumes were built primarily because the transportation to haul logs from the mill was just not there," he said. "If a mill produced a lot of lumber there weren't enough horse teams and mule teams to make them go."

The flumes delivered the boards to valley mills in Clovis, Sanger, Madera, where they were cut to size and loaded onto trains for export.

Olson believes the flumes themselves were marvels of 19th century engineering. From 40 to 60 miles long they traversed creeks and gorges on spindly wooden trestles. The flume from Hume Lake was more than 300 feet high as it spanned on canyon.

"To me the most amazing thing is they could actually build it and it would run pretty efficiently," Olson said. "I don't know if we have anyone who could do that today."

For the workmen who maintained the flumes, it could be a deadly job. Exact numbers aren't available but early reports suggest there were many falls and many deaths. Many workers would actually ride the boards down the flumes, and there are lots of stories of kids sneaking rides down the mountain. Olson says it would have been a scary ride.

"When that thing is flowing full with a couple inches on each edge and there's a 200-foot cliff over here, I don't know, lean inside," he said.

The Shaver Lake Flume was built in 1893. Within 20 years logging trucks started replacing flumes, and in 1914, when a snowstorm crushed parts of the Shaver Lake Flume, it was not repaired. The Shaver Lake Flume and the other flumes were all eventually dismantled and sold for scrap.

"And they built barns, and houses, and all kinds of stuff with it," Olson said.

Over the decades, lumber scavengers, the weather and forest fires did in what was left of the flumes. Replicas have been made, and a few original pieces remain scattered around. One of the best preserved is located at the Clovis Big Dry Creek Museum.

"It's one of our major interest points. We have engineers come in and even today say what a marvel that was," said local historian, museum curator, and former Clovis Mayor Peg Bos.

She says the flume should be best remembered as the economic engine it was. "We were a mill town for a long time and it gave us some excellent jobs, buy homes and start businesses."

While the flumes are gone and most of the mills closed, mountain water that rushed down the flumes was diverted into ditches and canals and helped develop the irrigation systems that made agriculture the Valley's biggest business today. While gone now, the flumes, with their thrilling but deadly dangers inspired flume rides like Splash Mountain at Disneyland. Where, you may get we but you won't fall off a cliff.

Related topics:
shaver lakehistory
Copyright © 2019 KFSN-TV. All Rights Reserved.