Note: This article is one of a series and was originally published on August 28, 2013.
A gentleman by the name of William H. Thurman came up with the idea of building a V-shaped wooden flume from his mill site in Oakhurst, CA. then known as Fresno Flats, to the railroad in Madera. It was made to float the milled lumber using the water in the flume to the railroad in the Central Valley by gravity.
Construction began in 1874, and by the time it was finished 2 years, later the flume was over 50 miles long, extending from Sugar Pine to the railroad head in Madera. The flume built in 16 foot long sections, 5 feet across consumed all the lumber the Sugar Pine Company could produce in the two years it took to construct the flume. The flume carried 1.5 billion board feet of lumber to Madera during the years it was in use.
Flume Herders were stationed along the flume to keep the lumber moving. One such Herder Station was located at Poison Switch on Rd. 600, where the flume made a sharp turn. An E Clampus Vitus Monument marks the location. It was said people actually rode the flume either on top of the lumber or in small handmade boats.
When I started looking at the old structures around Oakhurst, CA. I didn’t know what a flume was. I was on my way back from Manzanita Lake when I came upon a large structure, made from wood and steel, crossing the road. I thought it was old, but I have since learned it is part of the water intake into Bass Lake.
I also discovered there is a “modern day flume” called Brown Ditch, located at the Southeast end of Bass Lake. The flume intersects Hwy. 274 at Central Camp Road. Central Camp Rd. is where the entrance to the trail begins. It brings water down to Bass Lake from Willow Creek. It has a trail that runs alongside the flume. Brochures describe it as an easy hike. One word of caution, it has narrow metal walkways that take the flume and trail over gullies and creeks.
There is a section of the original Madera Sugar Pine Flume on display at the Fresno Flats Museum and another section on top of a E Clampus Vitus Monument, on the way to Yosemite along Highway 41, just past Rd. 632 (Sky Ranch Rd). Look for the ECCO sign on the right side.
It seems hard to believe that something this big, that was over 50 miles long, could just disappear.
I visited Sugar Pine just a mile off of Highway 41. Today not much of the Sugar Pine Mill remains. The log pond is used for recreation and fishing today. The old concrete power house is about all that is still standing. Most of the old logger’s cabins have been replaced by large vacation homes that are crowded on small lots along Lewis Creek.
There is another mill site, below Sugar Pine just off Sky Ranch Road along Lewis Creek. All that remains is a Wigwam Burner. It was used to burn scrap wood. Here again, I didn’t know what a Wigwam Burner was until I happened to spot this one on my way to Fresno Dome.
I was lucky to find Pam Rank, the very nice bookstore manager, at the Sugar Pine Railroad, who shared a lot of information and let me look through an old notebook with pictures of the old flume. I was able to buy a book at their gift shop titled, “Thunder in the Mountains: The Life and Times of Madera Sugar Pine,” by Hank Johnston that contained many old photos. The Sugar Pine Railroad, that is operated as a tourist attraction, was once an old section of the original tracks that hauled logs up to the flume. Something else I added to my vocabulary is "Steam Donkey Engine." They have one on display at the Sugar Pine Railroad. It was used to winch logs up from the side of the mountains.
I have just begun to scratch the surface, but I hope I have piqued your interest.
Links for more information:
Yosemite Sugar Pine Rail Road: http://www.ymsprr.com/, great Bookstore and Gift Shop
E Clampus Vitus article by Dwight Barnes: http://www.eclampusvitus.net/DBarnesFlume.html
Fresno Flats Museum: http://www.fresnoflatsmuseum.org/
“Thunder in the Mountains: The Life and Times of Madera Sugar Pine," by Hank Johnston: http://www.amazon.com/Thunder-Mountains-Times-Madera-Sugar/dp/087046017X
Also available at the Yosemite Sugar Pine Rail Road Gift Shop for $39.
Brown’s Ditch Flume: http://basslakeca.com/trails.html