Building the new town of Hobart Mills
Editors Note: This is the third in a four part series on the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company. The Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company had its roots in 1873 when Walter Hobart Sr. and Seneca Sam Marlette started cutting timbers for the Comstock Lode and the Virginia City water system. They operated a sawmill at Incline on the northeastern shores of Lake Tahoe from 1879 to 1894. Lumber was hauled to the mountain using an incline railroad, giving the area its name.In 1896 the old machinery from Incline lay scattered around a large flat spot on the north side of Prosser Creek, some five miles north of Truckee. Tents were mostly in evidence, as the sawmill and town site were just being staked out. A seven mile standard gauge railroad from Truckee was under construction, supervised by Captain John Bear Overton, the long time field general of the SNW&L at Incline. Two standard gauge locomotive engines were at work building the new line, as were many of the loggers and millmen. The new town would be named Overton to honor the captains dedication to the company.Overton, or Hobart Mills as it would soon become known, was laid out on the best modern engineering. It would still be Overton today if not for the Post Office denying that name, as there were too many Overtons already in use. The streets were wide and graveled, it had excellent water pressure with fine pure mountain spring water, had a modern sewage system, electric lights, a fire department and all the requirements of a large isolated mountain town.The construction work was well supervised by Ab Spencer, who was a master at his trade.
The immediate area around Hobart Mills was no stranger to lumbering. The flat area below the town was named Katzs Flat for Fred Katz, a logger of the 1870s who logged the Prosser Creek timber up to just above Hobart Mills. A reservoir had been built downstream from Hobart Mills by Gilman Folsom when he was partners in the Pacific Lumber & Wood Company at Clinton below Boca. It provided a head of water for sawlogs that were floated down Prosser Creek and the Truckee River to the sawmill.Just upstream from Hobart Mills was the Nevada & California sawmill, built by Seth Martin in 1872, but owned and run by Oliver Lonkey of the Verdi Lumber Company since 1874. A V flume from this mill, plus an old flume from the Banner Mill on Sagehen Creek, passed right by the new town. Lonkeys mill was still running while Overton was being built, and may have provided some of the lumber for the first houses.The land that Hobart acquired came from a variety of sources. He bought land from the Central Pacific Railroad, U.S. government lands, other lumber companies, Civil War veteran land scrip, homesteaders and other timber claims. He later bought timber from the Forest Service.
The man who gets credit for putting together some 70,000 acres of virgin pine and fir timberlands was William B. Tiffany. Tiffany was an experienced lumber and wood man who ran his own operation in the Truckee River Canyon below Floriston in the 1870s. Hobart hired him to cruise timber, survey land lines, measure water resources, and buy the land ahead of others. He had a head for figures, rarely wrote much down, but could remember the smallest detail. Tiffany spent years hiking the forests of Lake Tahoe, but had especially focused on the lands north of Truckee from Alder Creek, Prosser Creek, Sagehen Creek, Independence Lake, Webber Lake, almost to Sierraville and to the east to Stampede and Sardine Valleys. The virgin forest contained over 1.5 billion board feet of lumber and millions of cords of wood.Hobarts plan had always been to hold off logging these thick forests until other lumberman cut off the easy timber and prices rose. Both Hobart Sr. and Jr. understood the organization and attention to detail that was required to build a run such a large operation and make a profit.
The flurry of activity at Hobart Mills in 1896 was impressive. The railroad broke ground on July 6, and was completed to Overton on Sept. 7. A 1,000-foot wooden trestle, later replaced by concrete and steel, was built over Prosser Creek, right over the reservoir created by Gilman Folsom 25 years before.By October of 1896, George Giffen was making daily trips on the new line. Work on the narrow gauge logging line that ran into the forests was also under construction, utilizing the Incline rails and locomotives. Giffen had the honor of running the former Virginia & Truckee railroads engine, J.W. Bowker. This Baldwin-built locomotive had been hauling the lumber of the SNW&L for years from the companys lumber yard at Lakeview Station, the end of the long flume from Incline.The Bowker is still around, having been preserved rather than scrapped. It was a Hollywood favorite, and was used in 1939 for the filming of De Milles classic, Union Pacific. It also starred in the movie version of The Wild Wild West, and is now in the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.Work on the sawmill commenced on September 20, and the sawmill began operations on July 31, 1897. The saws were set up to cut 130,000 board-feet a day, a huge amount for the time, and additional capacity was soon added. This was industrial logging and lumber production on an immense scale, far bigger than the Incline operation.The 16-foot long logs were run through a band saw capable of slicing a seven-foot diameter log. Smaller logs were cut directly on circular saws, followed by gang saws that cut the lumber into one- or two-inch thick boards. Further trimming produced strong fine lumber.Visitors to the sawmill and factory were constant. It became a popular part of mountain vacations to stop for a night at Hobart Mills Hotel and tour the mill. A catwalk carried a visitors gallery over the whirring saws, providing an excellent view. Guests were amazed at the speed and efficiency at which logs were turned into lumber.
The largest amount of rough lumber was planed into fine grain, finished pine lumber, and most of that was used to make wooden boxes. In the days before cardboard and plastic, just about everything was shipped in wooden boxes. The majority of the boxes were used in the California agriculture business, for shipping fresh citrus fruits and vegetables eastward on the railroads. An example was an order from Southern California for 999,000 orange boxes that filled 222 railcars, and took 111 days to fill. Other portions of the massive factory that ran year-round were used to produce doors, windows, paneling, flooring, and a variety of finished furniture.A separate small sawmill was in operation on Alder Creek from 1901 to 1904. It was connected to the Hobart standard gauge railroad by a two-mile spur. In addition to logging pine for lumber, white and red fir were cut into four-foot lengths, split and cured in piles out in the forests. When dry, the wood was transported to the Floriston paper mill.The sawmill and factory complex was powered by a self-feeding, sawdust fired steam plant, whose five boilers powered two large steam engines that ran the machinery and the electric plant. The larger of the two engines was named Beast, while the smaller was called Beauty.Water for the boilers, sawmill, and town came from Hobart Reservoir, located a half mile to the north. The reservoir was fed by a three-mile pipeline from Sagehen Creek. It supplied 120 pounds of pressure, enough to power direct current electric lights and small machinery.A huge field of piled lumber was always air drying in the flat to the south, and wood fired dry kilns cured the lumber to perfection. One of the first large shipments out of the yards didnt go very far. Three million feet were sent to Floriston in 1899 and 1900 to build the town and the Floriston paper mill.But after that, pine lumber was shipped all over the West, and regularly to the east coast. Sailing and steam ships took it across the Pacific Ocean, such was the demand for Sierra Pine.Once Hobart Mills was up and running, life settled down to a predictable and profitable lifestyle. Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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