Rembering the life of a millwright |

Rembering the life of a millwright

The Sierra was first conquered by animal power, with oxen and horses assisting humans in the development and transportation in the mountains. But it was steam power that did the bulk of the work. By burning wood to boil water, steam power was used to move and saw logs into lumber, move boats across the mountain lakes, and many other jobs. It took millwrights such as Charles Roberson to keep the machinery working.Roberson came across the plains in 1852 and made his own way. He had no formal schooling as a millwright or mechanic. He had a natural knack for math and machinery and lived a life on the cusp on new inventions.Roberson first showed up in the Sierra running a sawmill in Cisco in the summer of 1865. The following winter he and his family spent the winter at Meadow Lake, working on mining machinery in that boom and bust mining town 25 miles northwest of Truckee. He used his skills to make excellent wooden skis and bindings for his family and neighbors.In the spring of 1867, Roberson was busy installing a quartz mill at the nearby Mohawk Mine. This machinery was shipped round the horn from the east, and Roberson was one of only a few men in the Sierra who could assemble the boiler, cylinders, engine and crushing mill.

Having to deal with up to 30 feet of snow was just too much for most men, and with the mining machinery complete, Roberson operated the Stonewall steam powered sawmill three miles east of Truckee along the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868 and 69. He sawed bridge and snow shed timbers, railroad ties and lumber while the railroad was extending iron rails east to meet the Union Pacific in Utah.A few years of that and the forest was cut over, so Charles Roberson moved into Truckee. He worked for a few years operating and repairing the steam machinery for pioneer lumberman Elle Ellen. Ellens mill was located a stones throw northwest of downtown Truckee. As with many energetic skilled men in the West, Roberson moved from job to job, always looking for a opportunity to better himself and put his skills to work. Millwrights, machinists and mechanics were in great demand and hard to find in the Sierra where many steam boilers and engines could be found. Many of the parts needed for quick repairs had to be made on the spot using a forge, hammer and anvil.For a time in 1871 Roberson ran Joe Grays sawmill at Camp 20, down the Truckee River Canyon where Gray Creek enters the Truckee River. But what he really wanted was to run his own sawmill. Roberson thrived on the wood fires, hissing steam, pumping water, spinning turbines, whirring saws, thumping of logs and lumber that made up an 1870s sawmill.

In 1871 Roberson partnered with James Machomick and Levi Robbins in construction of the Alder Creek Mill. The mill was powered by three steam engines, had two circular saws, an edger, a planing mill, and a shingle mill. The three steam engines were a curiosity for the times in that they worked together as one. The output of the mill was 40,000 board feet in 12 hours. In addition to lumber, they also cut railroad ties, telegraph poles, and mining timbers. The mill was located north of Truckee where Highway 89 crosses Alder Creek, three miles from downtown Truckee. Machomick was the woods boss, Roberson ran the steam mill, and Robbins was the bookkeeper and ran the lumberyard.Since the sawmill ran mostly during the summer, Roberson found extra work on steam engines at many of the area sawmills when he wasnt needed at Alder Creek, He was always being asked to troubleshoot other steam engines and mechanical devices in the area and his reputation grew. He worked on the machinery at Lake Tahoe sawmills located at Glenbrook and at Pomins. He demanded a high wage and always got it.Roberson used many ingenious techniques to keep the efficiency and production up. He recycled the condensed steam into the millpond to keep it from freezing when the mill had orders it needed to fill in the winter. He tweaked and coaxed higher pressures from anything that burned wood and created steam.Roberson also worked on the steam engines that powered the steamboats that plied Lake Tahoe. When William Campbell, owner of hotels in Truckee and at Brockway Hot Springs needed to have a new boiler and machinery installed in his steamer Truckee, he chose Roberson to do the work, and was quite pleased with the increase in speed Roberson coaxed out of the engine.At first lumber was hauled from the Alder Creek Mill to Truckee on wagons. Due to the steep hill, the route soon was abandoned. They next tried hauling it to Prosser Creek Station on Central Pacific Railroad. The trip by wagon was slow and costly and a more economical way to transport lumber was needed.

In 1873 the Alder Creek Mill completed a five-mile V flume from a reservoir above the mill, down Alder Creek and Prosser Creek to Prosser Creek Station, on the Central Pacific. The flume company was separate from the mill company, but had several common partners. The flume passed under the sawmill so that lumber went straight from the saws into the flume. The lumberyard was located along the Truckee River, at the confluence with Prosser Creek.In September of 1874 the partners built a 6-by-6-foot box flume from the reservoir to the mill. The box flume could float logs of any size from the reservoir to the sawmill. The reservoir was located about a quarter mile above the mill on Alder Creek.The mill was closed during the winter, like many area mills. In times of slow market demand they were temporarily closed, such as in August of 1875. At times when lumber orders demanded the mill ran overtime. In May of 1875 they milled and flumed 50,000 board feet in 12 hours. In June they had 1 million feet on hand in the Prosser Creek station lumber yard. In the woods the logging was done with 20 yoke of oxen hauling logs on huge wagons known as trucks, most of them built by Joe Gray in Truckee. In 1876 the unpredictable lumber business took a downturn and they were forced them to sell the oxen and wagons. The sawmill continued to run, using contract loggers. In February of 1877, Rueben Saxton, who owned a sawmill on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, near present day Sunnyside, was logging over the snow for them. Logging over the snow was a very common practice in this period.. Roberson and Machomick closed the mill down in 1878, after struggling for six years and barely making a living at their own mill.

Roberson went to work for Bragg & Folsoms sawmill at Clinton in the fall of 1879. This mill was across the river from present Hirschdale. The sawmill had burned in September in a spectacular fire. As a set of extensive new machinery needed to be set up and functioning quickly, Roberson was the natural choice to oversee the work. A short three months later the new mill was cutting lumber at a hefty 35,000 board feet a day.In the early 1880s Roberson plied his millwright trade from Reno to Lake Tahoe and south to the Yosemite region. From about 1883 through 1889 he maintained the sawmill, planing and shingle mill, ice dam and conveyors of the Boca Lumber and Ice Company. His reputation was secure, and he continued to take on other side jobs. He joined his former partner James Machomick, who was logging for the same company during the 80s.In 1886 he teamed with his son, William Roberson, also now a mechanic, to operate a small steam launch on Donner Lake. Robersons skill as a steam mechanic was instrumental in building and operating the Come. It was a 30-foot long, 8-foot-wide launch capable of hauling 30 passengers around Donner Lake from its base at Strombergs resort on the east end of Donner Lake. The steam engine was rated at 5 horsepower. The price for a round trip tour of Donner Lake was 50 cents. Charles Roberson oversaw the installation of a larger steam engine and better propeller in their second year of operation in 1887. In June of 1887 all of Truckee turned out to witness and enjoy a steamboat race between the Comet and the other steam launch on Donner Lake, the Nora. The upper end of Donner Lake was fairly calm at 4 p.m. when the race started. With 10 pounds less steam pressure to begin with, the Comet lost even more steam from a steam leak. The Nora pulled ahead early and despite a late push by the Comet, the Nora won by four boat lengths. After that loss, business wasnt enough to pay the bills and the Comet was sold at a Constable sale in the fall of 1887, though William Roberson continued to operate the boat.Roberson moved to Shasta County following the lumber trade, as many lumbermen did, but returned to operate the State Line Mill above Verdi in the 1890s. After that he returned to Shasta County where many other Truckee lumberman had moved to. Charles Roberson died in Sacramento in 1920. Charles Roberson lived a full life, just one of the many men who contributed to the history of the Tahoe-Truckee area. Not one of headlines, just a steady professional work ethic. He lived as many did, doing a job and doing it well.Details of the life of Charles Roberson and his stepdaughter, Jessie Calloway Weslow Hale, who followed Roberson around the west as she grew into womanhood can be found in Jessies Footsteps, by Katherine Graziano, available from the Truckee Donner Historical Society as well as the Truckee Library.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is You may leave a message at 582-0893.

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