Echoes From The Past: The legacy of the Richardson brothers |

Echoes From The Past: The legacy of the Richardson brothers

The Richardson brothers were born in Lincoln County, Maine, and grew up in a family of eight. They sailed around the horn of South America to California during the Gold Rush, arriving on the coast in 1851.Still in their early twenties, Warren and his older brother George came to California along with thousands of other young men attracted by the promise of fortune and adventure. The energetic brothers mined in Downieville for a few years before staking a claim in Georgetown in 1855. As the gold diggings declined, they decided to engage in the lumber business, and within a few years established their first successful sawmill.In 1865, they left El Dorado County and rode across the mountains on horseback toward Virginia City. Along the way, they encountered thousands of workers clearing rock and laying track for the first tunnel of the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra. As they rode further east, they entered the Truckee River basin where they came upon a single log cabin where they met two men, Joseph Gray and George Schaffer, clearing land next to the river in the area which would later become the town of Truckee. They asked for directions to Virginia City and continued on, passing by way of Lake Tahoe and the nearby mining camp of Elizabeth Town.Upon arriving in bustling Virginia City, they followed their occupation as millwrights on the Comstock, putting up a number of mills needed to provide timbers for the huge mines that honeycombed the area.In 1867, they returned to California, and for one season, ran a sawmill at Cape Horn, near Colfax. The following year they leased a mill at Summit Valley, southwest of Donner Pass. They later purchased the mill, running it until 1875 when they moved the machinery and constructed a larger mill in Martis Valley.The new Truckee mill was located on the middle fork of Martis Creek, six miles south of town and east of George Schaffer’s mill. The area is located east of today’s Highway 267 near Martis Dam Road. The site offered access to several thousand acres of the choicest timber in the area.The foundation of the mill was laid in May and the whole plant was completed and in running order within 40 days after the work commenced. The new mill was powered by a 60 horsepower engine which ran one main circular saw capable of cutting logs at the rate of 50,000 feet every 12 hours.Operating with five teams of oxen, the mill employed 35 men who cut the logs and flumed the rough sawn lumber 5 1/2 miles to their planing mill and box factory in Truckee which employed 40 men. The mill utilized two large mill ponds formed by dams which they constructed along Martis Creek.Five months from the time the mill began operating it had sawed 1,200,000 feet of lumber, which was piled ready for shipment through the flume to the Richardson lumber yards at Martis Creek Station on the line of the Central Pacific Railroad at the mouth of Martis Creek, four miles east of Truckee.The Richardson flume was one and a half miles long and connected with the Sisson & Wallace flume in Martis Valley, making the entire distance through both flumes to the Martis Creek lumber yard about 5 1/2 miles long. By using flumes the cost of lumbering was cut considerably by eliminating the use of teams for hauling lumber and material.As the forests receded, the mill was relocated to a new site near the road to Lake Tahoe, a few miles south of their first mill site. The greater distance necessitated them to find a new for getting logs from the forest to their mill. They decided to haul their lumber by steam wagon.The Richardson brothers’ steam engine was a locomotive that ran on concave wheels over pine logs that were imbedded in the ground. This smoke-belching monster with clanging undercarriage was the like of which was never before seen in the Truckee area, and scared many a team as it pulled a flatcar of logs from the staging area to the mill.Early historical accounts described the huge locomotive as having three zinc-covered cylinders with heavy flanged wheels which moved ponderously over the log tramway either pulling or pushing tremendous car loads of huge logs. Fed by refuse from the mill, it cost nothing for fuel. Its tracks required very few repairs and it was said to have the strength of three locomotives. Reportedly, the traction of the locomotive itself was so great it could climb grades of up to 16 percent without a load.Box-making was a another major industry in Truckee during the late 19th century. Boxes of all sizes were manufactured for customers in California’s central valley as containers for shipping fresh fruit destined for eastern markets. Trainloads of fruit would be packed in boxes and wrapped in paper from local paper mills and kept cold with clear Truckee ice before making the long journey east. The Richardson brothers and the Truckee Lumber Company ran the two largest box factories in this area.During winters, the Richardsons were also involved in the ice industry. Warren Richardson was partners with John F. Moody and Thomas McAulay along with their wives in the Tahoe Ice Company, Inc. This company owned the ice works at Polaris.The enterprising brothers also invented a method to expedite log handling at the headsaw. An automatic cant-hook or block, maneuvered by pulling on a rope, caused the log to be shifted and canted in front of the saw. The device could turn a log from side to side, no matter how large, with ease and rapidity. As reported by the Mining and Scientific Press of August 5, 1876, this technique was patented by the Richardsons and was soon in use by several other mills. These innovations along with hard work made the Richardson brothers two of the wealthiest men this side of the Sierra.George Richardson never married. Warren Richardson did marry and he and his wife Margaret had four sons, Warren Jr.; George; Raymond, and Ralph. When Margaret died, Warren married Sarah Ward with whom he spent his remaining years.On June 17, 1903, The Truckee Republican (predecessor to the Sierra Sun) announced the death of George W. Richardson. An entire page of the newspaper was devoted to his obituary, providing an indication of his respect in the community. George Richardson was buried in the Truckee Cemetery.Following the depletion of the forests and the closure of the mill in 1906, the end came for Warren Richardson in April 1907. Warren Richardson was laid to rest in the cemetery at Colfax. The passing of the Richardson brothers marked the end of over 30 years of logging in the Truckee area, and the close of a glorious era in local history.The Richardson house, located at 10154 High Street, was constructed in 1887. This large vernacular Victorian residence was constructed by Warren Richardson and served as home for his family. The Richardson Brothers’ company office, located at 10184 High Street, was constructed in approximately 1894 as a lumber office and may have also served as a residence for George Richardson. In the 1920s, after the collapse of the local lumber industry, the lumber office building was converted into a family residence and has been undergoing a slow process of restoration for the last decade.Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by e-mail at

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