"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Lumber Was an Important Part of California's Early History

by Don Baumgart

When gold mining moved from one man, one pan to shafts sunk deep into hard rock the hunt required more men and a lot more lumber.

Wooden beams supported the mine tunnels and wood was burned to make the steam that ran the engines to raise and lower men in and out of the underground mines. Cutting wood soon became a major enterprise in the gold country and trees were a lot easier to find than nuggets.

As towns grew, lumber was used to build stores and homes...over and over again as fires swept through Grass Valley and Nevada City.

Then came the railroad, heading East toward Promontory Utah and the historic connection with rails coming West. Every mile needed sturdy wooden ties. As the railroad moved toward the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, sawmills led the way, moving along in advance of the steel rails. In the mountains 35 miles of snow shed would be built, of wood, to shelter the tracks from the winter snows.

By 1868 there were 14 mills in the Truckee River basin churning out 66 million feet of lumber.

The railroad, and its demand for wood, moved over the mountains idling many of the busy sawmills. Then silver was discovered in Nevada. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad was finished in 1872, opening up a new market for timbers in the Nevada silver mines. Thousands of cords of wood were shipped to the Comstock Lode, and even farther to Salt Lake, Cheyenne, and Denver. A single order came from Salt Lake for 10 million board feet.

But not all of the fallen trees rode the rails, at least not at first. Canadian lumbermen brought a new concept to the Truckee basin in 1867: lumber chutes. Logs were hauled to the top of the chute and slid down to the river.

"Down they went," says one historical journal, "with a terrific velocity, carrying a comet-like tail of fire and smoke, raised by the friction of their rapid descent. When they plunged into the river they made a report that echoed through the hills and dashed a column of water a hundred feet into the air."

Then the logs were floated down stream to the saw mills. Or, loaded onto short run railroads like the Clinton Narrow Gauge Railroad, built by the Pacific Wood and Lumber Company. Only four miles long, the railroad's cars could each haul half a dozen big logs to the company's mill.

The financial saving over hauling logs to the mill by wagon was enormous.

Not all the trees became lumber. Sisson Wallace and Company employed 350 chinese at Truckee in 1872 making charcoal, another popular wood product.

From 1867 to 1880 500 million board feet of lumber were cut in the Truckee basin and shipped away. Entire forests were harvested leaving only underbrush, second growth trees and the giant stumps of fallen old growth timber.

The forests would be a long, long time regrowing.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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