HISTORY: Logging flumes at work, and play

Judy DePuy
Special to the Sierra Sun
Flat-bottomed flumes, like this one in Martis Valley owned by George Schaeffer, were a more economical and practical alternative to box flumes.
Truckee Donner Summit Historical Societies

Flumes were a means to move logs from the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada to the railroad. For a time this mode of transportation helped support an important industry in Truckee.


Logging has been a huge part of Truckee’s history. From 1866 until the early 1990s, the lumber industry was a major force in Truckee’s economy. Truckee’s early logging methods used unique mixture of man, animal, and steam-powered railways; log chutes, and natural watercourse transportation.

The log chutes and natural watercourse “flumes” were used because of the close proximity of the timber to the river, the slope of the terrain, the abundant availability of water and the inexpensive cost. In the late 1800s:

A narrow gauge railroad cost $4,000 per mile to build while a log chute could be built for as little as $300 per mile.

Plus it took only four men and four oxen to lay a quarter of a mile of chute per day.

These flumes were also used for locally manufactured raw materials:

Ice transportation, lumber, wood cords;

Water to make power (still working along the Truckee River since 1899!);

And transporting good clean water to where it was needed.

Flume water was even more essential to the sawmills and lumber yards where wood was the new gold. This flume water powered the early lumber mills before the onset of steam.


Flumes of different constructions were the replacement for the old style of hauling wood. The abundance of wood in the hills required a more efficient method of hauling wood out of the forest. Flumes were used with the help of gravity. Greased-lot flumes for logs and flumes using flowing water, moved both logs and lumber, were widely employed all over the Sierra.

Fun fact, on those greased-lot flumes: Due to the lack of refrigeration, milk was made into “Sierra” butter. Loggers used to call butter “salve” but the name changed when officials found they could buy butter cheaper than lard to grease the skids for sliding the logs to the staging areas. As a side note, the call was “pass the skid grease” when loggers wanted to butter their toast.

Introduction of the V-Flume

Box flumes were used over the logging roads but were replaced with the more economical and practical V-flume, which had been under development since 1864 and revolutionized the transportation of lumber in this region.

In the spring of 1869, J.W. Haines, who had been cutting timber on his land at the foot of the Kingsbury Grade since 1866, applied for a patent to the V-flume. He is regarded by many as the inventor of the V-flume, however, they appear to have evolved over time from the experience of many lumber operators.

A description of the V-flume was written by Eliot Lord in 1883: “To form this [V] flume rough planks 1 ½ inches thick, 24 inches in breadth, and 16 feet long, were joined at an angle of 90 (degrees), and the trough thus made was lengthened by the junction of similar sections with overlapping ends. The flume was laid on the ground with simple wooden props, and supported by trestle-work” (used when it was necessary to cross difficult ravines). These V-flumes were water-tight and could transport trees 40 feet long and later transported lumber.

Elle Ellen came to Truckee in 1868 and was the proprietor of the Truckee Saw Mill. He is said to have installed the first flume in this area along Trout Creek from Tahoe Donner Bennett Flat Road to downtown Truckee. Ellen built a V-flume from his mill to the railroad where boards slid down an incline from the rollers at the mill onto the flume and “not the least care or attention” was required until they were taken out at Truckee for shipment.

Water was known to be a bit scarce in Trout Creek in late summer but water from two large springs near Elle Ellen’s mill provided water for the flume. “The mill and flume promise to be the key to all the lumber region; between Donner and Webber Lakes, and as far west as Summit. All the wood and timber around the head of Carpenter’s and Euer’s Valley can be marketed through extensions of this flume.” (“My Place in the Sun”, 2/16/79, Sierra Sun).

In 1878 alone, Ellen’s mill cut 700,000 board feet and was working on an order of an additional 350,000 feet of lumber. His flume cost between $8,000 to $9000 and was considered one of the best flumes in the Sierra Nevada.

With the V-flume, thousands of acres of timberland were now accessible from both sides of the mountains to the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

But V-flumes weren’t just for logs. The exhilarating, and terrifying, sport of flume riding was born from these V-flumes.

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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