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Truckee River’s dams helped with logging

Gordon Richards

This Sunday, the Truckee River Watershed Council is sponsoring Truckee River Day. The annual event to improve the health of the river seeks to restore the watershed from the impacts of man’s uses and abuses. This week I’ll take you on a trip of the past industrial uses of the river.The Truckee River starts at Lake Tahoe, and the first and most important dam was constructed there for the Truckee lumber industry. In 1870, the Donner Boom & Flume Company built a wood-cribbed and rock-filled dam to back up and store water in Tahoe. The water was released in summer in surges that floated logs downstream. It backed up water at least six feet high onto the shores of Lake Tahoe.The dam has been referred to as belonging to Alexis von Schmidt. Von Schmidt proposed to tap the waters of Tahoe, and build a tunnel through the Sierra at Squaw Valley. The plan was to use the water for domestic uses in the foothills and in San Francisco. Von Schmidt had plans for another dam built near the present River Ranch. Politics in San Francisco and in Nevada prevented the completion of this project.The present Lake Tahoe Dam is farther upstream than the von Schmidt structure. It was built in 1913, with the United States Bureau of Reclamation gaining complete control in 1915. Federal court decrees control the storage and flow rates of the outlet gates, but drought has eliminated the storage in Tahoe, resulting in extremely low river flow. These are the natural conditions that existed before the construction of the first Tahoe Dam.At least a dozen small dams were constructed on the Truckee River between Lake Tahoe and Truckee. These dams held water long enough to build up the river so that logs could be floated further downstream. Fish ladders were required, but were never built. Sediment also filled up behind these dams, then released when the dams were washed out in heavy floods.In the area near Deep Creek and the Goose Meadow Campground was the Comer fish hatchery. Water was taken from the river to fill ponds that spawned and shipped out millions of trout. Nearby was the Truckee River Mineral Springs, later Tahoe Mineral Springs. These riverside springs supported a plant that bottled the water for retail sale. Truckee’s C.F. McGlashan owned these works in the early 1900s.At Donner Lake, a small dam was built in 1868 to power an early sawmill, located just downstream from the lake. The first water storage dam on Donner Lake was built in 1877. An improved version was built in 1889, and the current Donner Lake dam was built in 1929. Donner Creek had a major ice pond constructed on it in 1894 by Joseph Marzen. Interstate 80 drastically changed the course of the creek from Donner State Park to the present Highway 89, resulting in today’s channeled version of the creek.Truckee area river usesJust above Truckee, in the present West River Street area, Joseph Marzen ran a slaughterhouse that supplied Truckee with most of its beef and pork during the late 1800s. A small dam directed water flows under the facility to carry the wastes back into the river. The Donner Boom & Flume Company also had a large woodyard on West River Street that was the end of a wood flume that extended back up the Truckee River several miles.At Truckee, along present West River Street, just east of where the McIver Undercrossing connects, was the Truckee Lumber Company sawmill. From 1868 until 1909, this mill was the destination of most of the millions of logs that were floated down the river to cut into ties, lumber and timbers. The mill was water powered and depended on the steady flow of the river. After 1900, an electric generator was installed to power electric lights at the mill.Just downstream was the factory of the Truckee Lumber Company, built in 1869. It was also powered by the flow of the river. The factory took rough lumber and turned it into furniture, doors, windows, boxes and finished lumber until it was closed in 1914. The open area across the river was at one time filled with lumber yards. The sawdust and wood scraps from this sawmill were burned in a furnace that was on the south side of the river. Other sawmills in the area dumped the sawdust into the river, and the lower Truckee River in Nevada became a mush of decomposing sawdust that added to the demise of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout in the Truckee River.Downstream from Truckee, another dam, built of wood cribbing, which can still be seen today, was used by several different industries. The Truckee silver smelter operated from 1872 to 1874, and later the building was used by several different companies for use as a box plant. The river powered the saws and the equipment needed to produce the highly demanded fruit boxes for California agriculture. From the late 1890s until the 1930s, the dam was used to powered Truckee’s electric lights.Floating down further, one would come to another dam, opposite Olympic Heights. This dam was built to divert water into the Tahoe Ice Company ponds on the south side of the river. Built in 1886, it continued to produce ice until about 1922. This area was also one of the town’s dumpsites in the 1930s and ’40s. At Martis Creek another ice dam had been built in 1884 for Truckee Ice works. This was built on Martis Creek, right above the confluence of the Truckee River. The present Martis Reservoir was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control. It was completed in 1971. Due to geological conditions, this reservoir is only used to store water for short periods of time when floods are imminent in the Reno area.Prosser Creek also had extensive ice works. The Summit Ice Company built a dam just upstream from the Truckee River in 1872. Farther upstream several sawmills had flumes that carried lumber down to lumberyards along the Truckee River.Logs were also floated down Prosser Creek in the late 1860s until the ice dam was built in 1872. The present Prosser Creek dam was completed in 1962 to provide flood control and fish habitat protection in the lower Truckee River.The Little Truckee RiverAt Boca the Little Truckee River adds it flows to the Truckee. As early as 1867, logs were floated down the Little Truckee to the Boca Lumber Company sawmill. This company floated logs on the river until 1908. At least 30 dams of various types were built to store water for the log drives. Major storage dams were built at Stampede Meadows, Webber Lake and Independence Lake. The current Independence Lake dam was created in 1937, providing water storage for downstream uses.The lumber company also built a sawmill pond that in winter became its ice pond. This pond was just upstream of the confluence with the Truckee River. A replacement concrete dam that was built in 1907, which can still be seen below the present Boca Dam. The newer earth filled Boca Dam was finished in 1937 and is used for many downstream domestic and irrigation water uses. At the present community of Hirschdale, the Pacific Wood & Lumber Company erected a dam for its millpond in 1868. A major fish ladder was added in 1872, which helped the fish move upstream. It also allowed the local Washoe people a chance to spear fish very easily, so that few fish made it past this dam all through the late 1800’s. After the mill closed the dam was blown up by Truckee River fishermen, though remains of it can still be located today.Down the Canyon, diversion dams were built at Iceland, Bronco and Floriston to feed riverside ice ponds. Remains of log cribbing are still visible today in low water. The Floriston Pulp and Paper Mill was built in 1900, and was an immediate problem for downstream users. The waste and acid killed all fish in the Truckee River until its closure in 1930.Today’s Truckee River watershed is a much cleaner, more environmentally friendly river than in the historic industrial period, but it still needs help in restoration efforts. The Truckee River Watershed Council invites you to participate in the continuing improvement of the Truckee River.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at //truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893.


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