Lumber company helped build more than Truckee
August 7, 2006
The forests of the Truckee River Basin provided Western United States with the lumber that was needed to build the homes and businesses in a growing 19th century nation. The Truckee Lumber Company played a major part of that story.
The founders of the company, George Geisendorfer and Edward Brickell, were experienced sawmill operators when they started here in March of 1867. They built a water powered mill on Truckee River next to Coburn’s Station. The sawmill site was located where the McIver Under Crossing meets West River Street.
The following year J.H. Hoadley built a sash and door factory a few hundred yards downstream. By 1871 the combined operation was the leading lumber operation on the Central Pacific Railroad.
The early years were boom times as the lumber market demanded millions of board feet of rough and finished lumber. The Central Pacific Railroad needed ties, poles, bridge timbers and snow shed timbers. Thousands of cords of firewood were also being cut and sold for fuel.
By 1872 Truckee Lumber Company had established lumber yards in Salt Lake City, Reno and San Francisco. The 60-foot circular saws buzzed their way through 100,000 board feet of lumber every 12 hours. Logs were cut upstream along the Truckee River and floated down the river in springtime log drives.
By 1873 Brickell was running the business by himself, but in 1874 William Kruger, whom Brickell formerly partnered with in a earlier Placer County sawmill, bought into the Truckee Lumber Company.
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Brickell bought up much of the old Coburn’s Station land north of the railroad tracks and started building houses for the mill and factory employees. This stretch along Donner Pass road would become today’s Brickelltown.
In 1874 Kruger built a substantial house for his family of six. This house still stands today as the Kruger-CB White House in Brickelltown. Some of the surviving buildings along the street were the original company houses.
The two mill ponds were upstream, holding up to 10 million board feet of timber. The site of these ponds is now the commercially developed areas of West River Street. For decades the logs, mostly pine, were floated from to the mill in a large flume, and into the large saws.
The sawmill was mostly powered by the Truckee River, unlike many mills that were steam-powered. This method was cheaper, but also resulted in many shutdowns as moving parts of the water wheels frequently broke down. The mill shut down during the winter when ice made water power difficult to operate.
The rough cut lumber was taken across the river and piled in large stacks to dry. The majority of the lumber after 1875 was used in the ever expanding factory. This huge structure was expanded to three stories with the addition of a box making factory in 1877. The factory site is in the area of the current Berry Hinckley fuel terminal.
The threat of fire was ever present in the sawdust and wood scraps in the sawmill and factory. To stop fires, a first class fire prevention and suppression system was installed. Large water pumps and piping brought river water to quell the flames of the dozens of small fires that broke out. Wooden barrels filled with water lined the roof during the summer.
In 1878 the company bought a hand powered fire engine and trained its workers to fight fires professionally. Across the road a large fire house was built and staffed by employees. This fire company responded to fires whether they were in the mill complex, in Brickelltown or in Truckee. In many cases the company fire crew was more effective than the Truckee volunteers.
The dried pine lumber was run back across the river to the factory on a tramway, where dozens of specialized machines created a variety of finished projects. They produce finished flooring, roofing and siding, pickets, lath, windows, shingles, boxes, crates, barrels, tubs, and everything else made of wood. They fabricated whole buildings, took them back apart for shipping and reconstructed them on sites far from Truckee. They created manufactured housing a hundred years before it was commonplace.
They had an upholstery shop for furniture, a embossing plant for wood box printing, and an award winning door plant. Doors were shipped even into Oregon. The year round operation frequently ran two shifts during the busy times. A sawdust fired kiln dried the green lumber in a week.
Markets for their products were both close and far away. They provided lumber for many Truckee buildings, long since burned, as well as all over Nevada. They supplied the fine finished pine scroll work for such historic buildings as the Piper Opera House in Virginia City. Utah was a major market, and in the 1880s, Arizona.
They shipped railcar loads to San Francisco, where they built a box factory. Wood products were shipped to Los Angeles where a wholesale yard was run in the 1890s, when the fruit industry expanded there. Boxes for salmon were shipped to Alaska.
The mill might employ up to 50 men during the summer, whereas the factory employed well more than 100 men year round who supported the Truckee community. Another 75 or so worked in the forests during the logging season.
The company operated its own general store on Front Street that was open for employees and the public as well. Prices were competitive with the other stores in Truckee. The first electric lights in Truckee were in the factory, and the water powered dynamo later provided electric lights to all of downtown Truckee.
The operation was a dangerous place for working men, as minor and serious injuries were quite common. Truckee’s doctors were always on call, ready to treat the Lumber Company employees. About a dozen men lost their lives working in the ponds, mill and factory over the years.
William Kruger remained in Truckee and ran the operation, while Brickell was involved in expanding the company interests around the West. Brickell moved to Spokane, Wash., in 1885, expanding to that region. By the time of their deaths in 1891, they had expanded to include sawmills in Dog Valley, Spokane, and Tillamook, Ore.
The descendants of Brickell and Kruger continued to own most of the company stock, but slowly new ownership under the lead of O.C. Haslett and the management of J.E. Sibley took over and continued the expansion. Mills were built above Donner Lake near Billy Mack Creek, at Cantera near Mount Shasta and extensive land was bought near Oroville.
Fire had been kept away by Kruger’s aggressive efforts, but the new owners failed to keep up the vigilance. In September of 1900 a fire swept the lumber yards south of the river burning a million board feet of dried lumber.
In May of 1902, the massive factory burned to the ground in a spectacular fire. The factory was rebuilt on a slightly smaller scale, making mostly boxes. In October of 1903 the sawmill burned. It too was rebuilt and production went on.
The company ran out of timber in the forests in 1909. On Nov. 6, 1909 three long mournful steam whistles sounded and a funeral like atmosphere descended on Truckee. After 41 years of operations, the town’s primary employer folded up shop.
The sawmill machinery was moved to Oroville, where logging continued under the Swayne Lumber Company for another four decades.
Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives.
History walk: Join The Truckee Donner Historical Society on a history walk on Truckee’s South West River Street area on Tuesday, Aug. 8. Meet at the vacant lot on the corner of Brockway Road and South River Street, next to the Truckee River Bridge at 6 p.m.
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