The life and times of the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company |

The life and times of the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company

Photo courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

Editors note; This is the first in a four-part series on the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company.Walter Hobart was a Nevada mining man who saw lumber production as a sideline to the Comstock Lode silver mining. The lumber company he founded ended up lasting longer than the silver boom did.In 1873 Nevada State Controller Walter Hobart and former Nevada and California Surveyor General Seneca Sam Marlette were operating a small sawmill in Little Valley, a secluded valley between Incline Village and the Washoe Valley. This sawmill cut mining timbers and shipped them to Virginia City by means of a two-and-a- half-mile-V flume that landed the timbers rough lumber on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.The partners were investors in and provided a lot of the lumber and timbers being used to build the Virginia & Gold Hill Water Company flume which took water from above Incline Village and Marlette Lake through the Carson Range by tunnel. From the top of the Washoe Valley, the water went into 7 miles of 12-inch wrought iron pipe, down 1,720 feet and back up again in an inverted siphon.The construction boss of this work was John Bear Overton, who would later, as superintendent, become the absolute final word in the operation for Hobart & Marlette, while still running the Water Company in Virginia City.In 1876 Hobart & Marlette moved their mill, following the ever moving front of falling trees further up into Little Valley. In addition to lumber, thousands of cords of firewood were cut for use in the Comstock Lode. In 1878 Hobart & Marlette incorporated into the Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company.The Comstock Lode had hundreds of steam engines that were hungry for four foot split pine and fir, using in excess of 100,000 cords a year. Most of the wood was cut from the tops of trees cut for lumber, but young trees of every size were also taken.

By November of 1879 they had finished construction on a new larger mill at Crystal Bay on the northeast shore of Lake Tahoe. They referred to it as Overton Bay, because it was J.B. Overton who was in charge of building the sawmill and would run all of the operations. Crystal Bay was actually named, not for its clear waters, but for George Crystal, who filed the first timber claims in the area in the early 1860s.The SNW&L had bought and leased over 10,000 acres of timberlands along the eastern mountains of Lake Tahoe. The Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine trees werent as large as those found further west in the Sierra Nevada, but these tight-grained Carson Range pines made strong timbers to hold up the earth in the ever deepening stopes and shafts under Virginia City.The sawmills circular saws first filed into logs that were cut in the hills above Crystal Bay, and the lumber was used to build the mill buildings, bunkhouses, cookhouse and other needed facilities on what is now Mill Creek. By the time full operations were underway in early 1881, over 250 loggers, swampers, millmen, woodcutters, camp tenders and mechanics were at work at the mill. Transportation was a challenge that required some inventiveness. Wagon roads were built from Washoe Valley over the mountain to bring in supplies. A similar road was built up and over the ridge west of Incline Village to Hot Springs, then over the hill to Truckee. Heavy machinery generally was freighted by wagon to either Glenbrook or Tahoe City, then by steamer to Overton. To get the logs from the forest to the mill, oxen skidded the logs through the rough terrain to dry chutes, which were made of two parallel saplings, where horses would speed them to either the mill, the lake, or later, railroad landings. Donkey engines, which are steam powered winches, were also in use to snake logs down the ridges and ravines to landings in the 1890s.

Once the lumber was sawed, it was loaded on to small railcars, and these cars were lifted up the mountain by the famous Incline Railroad. The incline was built in 1880, with the 8,000 feet of cable weighing 14,000 pounds, taking almost a week to haul and ship from Truckee. The lift was 1,400 feet vertically and the rail line 4,000 feet long.As four loaded cars were being hauled up on the endless cable by the steam engine located at the top, four empty ones were let down the other rail, adding to the efficiency of the operation. The trip took about 20 minutes with one and a half cords of wood or 1,500 board feet of lumber being hauled each trip.Within two months of the inclines opening, the first major accident occurred. Two loaded cars were being hauled uphill, when suddenly, a loud noise startled the mill workers. The cable on the twelve foot bullwheels hummed and shook, and the lumber cars that were nearing the top, stopped their uphill climb.Slowly at first, then picking up speed quickly, the cars flew downhill. There was nothing to be seen but a streak of fire and smoke streaming out behind the cars. They held the track, thanks to the cable, but that meant they were going all the way to the bottom. There, mill hands scrambled to get away, stumbling and tripping in their haste.The cars hit the bottom of the incline, smashed up the head frame, then launched into the air, and burst into a stand of pine trees with an earth shattering explosion. Metal and wood were splintered into small pieces, with boards piercing the trees to a depth of 8 inches.The cause of the wreck was attributed to the operator over winding the wrought iron clutch. Apparently Overtons clutch design was less than perfect, as seven cars ran away and were wrecked before a new ratchet and cog system was installed preventing any car from dropping further than four inches.At the top of the incline, the lumber was dumped into a large wooden V flume that carried it south to the Virginia & Gold Hill water tunnel. There the lumber floated through the mountain in its own flume in the 3,994 foot long tunnel, then down into Little Valley, landing on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad at Lakeview Station, on the divide between Washoe Valley and the Carson City.

Hobarts operation hired experienced loggers from all over the west, including many from Truckee. Charley Barton, a master logger who logged for many lumbermen in the 1870s, started logging on contract for SNW&L in 1883, and started a family relationship with the company that would last for decades.Working as a contractor for the SNW&L was veteran Tahoe-Truckee lumberman Gilman Folsom, who had been a partner in a sawmill at Clinton below Boca from 1870 to 1880. In 1880 Folsom partnered with Sam Marlette and they took up a 40,000 cord a year wood cutting contract that employed over 400 men year round, and starting contract logging for the company the following year.The SNW&L also hired Chinese workers, mostly for menial tasks and wood cutting. As Truckee area lumbermen were being boycotted by white laborers for hiring Chinese workers and were responding by firing the Chinese, SNW&L took the opposite approach and hired more Chinese and fired the whites. By 1883 SNW&L owned 70,000 acres north of Truckee in the Prosser, Sagehen Creek and Little Truckee River. Rumors constantly circulated around Truckee in the 80s and early 90s that Hobart was going to buy an existing sawmill or build a new one and start logging these forests.While the Carson Range lands were the center of Lake Tahoe operations, Walter Hobart continued to invest in timberlands on the north and west shores of Tahoe. Enough timber had been purchased to last to 1900, if all went according to plan. The future looked very bright.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at Sierra Sun. Com in the archives. The e-mail address is

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