HISTORY: The exhilarating and terrifying sport of flume riding
Special to the Sierra Sun
To learn more about the history of flume riding, tune in to Sierra State Parks Foundation’s final speaker series of the year featuring Judy DePuy and the incredible sport of flume riding. The event can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/SierraSPF/ at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17. There is a $5 suggested donation to support Sierra State Parks Foundation.
V-flumes were used to transport logs, lumber, working material and supplies but they were also used to transport people and for entertainment.
A sick or injured person from the mountains would many times be placed in a “flume boat” and sent to the valley, sometimes alone and sometimes with family or friends in attendance, for medical treatment. It was the fastest way to get them help.
A very ‘trendy’ date night would include asking your date to walk with you along the flumes, especially at 100 feet above ground at the highest trestle points (which have no railing … but you are in a shallow flume), to show how much you cared for her and how bold and courageous you were. Including lunch or dinner only made the date that much more special.
Loggers liked the flumes since it got them to town much faster for one of their few nights off. (Remember – many logging towns did not allow drinking.) The loggers would build small boats to fit the flume with which they could ride down to town. And Truckee provided lots of entertainment (a plethora of bars, numerous brothels and one jail … all on Jibboom Street … in the late 1870s). But for the early loggers the most fun was the sport of flume riding. This daring sport gained popularity in 1865 –1895 starting out as log-riding and then becoming the more ‘refined’ sport of flume riding.
No one knows where flume riding started – probably in ancient Roman aquaducts – which more closely resembled the box flumes with large volumes of water moving at slow speeds. V-flumes changed the sport.
V-Flumes ran for miles, winding down canyons and often shooting straight down steep slopes. The V-flumes in Verdi, Crystal Peak, Dog Creek and Prosser Creek areas were V-shaped “Go-Devils” constructed by lumbermen. “The Go-Devils were used to carry tools, supplies, and construction materials, and it has been well established that the men often used them for fast transportation.”
“The men of the Banner Mill on Prosser Creek rode the Go-Devils on payday nights in their eagerness to be out of the pine forests and down to the railroad, which they rode up to Truckee and its exciting bright lights and night-life.”Some of the more interesting rides would have the ‘logger boat’ flying off the flume endpoint at an exorbitant height and speed where the passengers needed to make sure they ejected from the log before the log hit the water and they were safe and far from where the log would land.
One of the best, and most horrific stories of flume riding comes from the Tales of the Golden West’s article “Journalist Would Never Forget Ride Down Comstock Flume” by Joe Smith.
In 1875 The Tribune sent H.J. Ramsdell west to research the new found wealth in the Comstock. He was well entertained and escorted in style through mines and the 15-mile long V-shaped flume where the massive logs came from the Sierra. These logs came down at incredible speed to the mill pond at Huffaker’s in the valley below Mt. Rose. Ramsdell was offered to “ride the flume” which he accepted on the condition his hosts join him. His hosts were James C. Fair and James Flood, major owners of Comstock’s properties. They rode in hollowed out logs, the reporter and one of his hosts in the first, the other host and a logger (for ballast) in the second.
“The terror of that ride,” Ramsdell wrote, “can never be blotted from my memory.” He recalled hanging in midair with no support while the mountains rushed by. He admitted to being scared beyond all belief. The second dugout started 60 seconds after the first and caught up to it just as they reached the mill pond. The collision sent all four flume riders sailing in different directions far from shore. Ramsdell admitted he had had enough with flumes but when asked why he did it he said “Well, I figured if men worth $25 million apiece could risk their lives, I could too.”
The good news is with the introduction of narrow gauge railroads, the flumes were less popular and less necessary for logging. It may have saved a few lives. The closest thing we have left to experience the thrill of log rides would be found at amusement parks.
Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee Donner Historical, Truckee Donner Railroad and Donner Summit Historical Societies. She lives in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, and dog, Morticia.
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