Life in Hobart Mills
The Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company began its life as a small lumber mill in 1873 in the mountains east of Lake Tahoe. By 1900 they had built the town of Hobart Mills five miles north of Truckee.Saloons were banned in Hobart Mills, as were liquor sales at the company owned Overton Mercantile, but across Prosser Creek was Klondike, where first J.B. Welton, then Sophie McLeod, ran a small roadhouse on one of the few properties not controlled by the company. Still, those who overindulged were met with stern warnings and then dismissal if they persisted with excessive drinking.When the woodsmen came in from the logging camps, they weren’t as concerned about being civilized, so they went on to Truckee where they had their choice of saloons and red light district entertainment. Hobart Mills remained so well behaved, that for the first decade, the townspeople found no need for a constable or a justice of the peace.While there was no church in Hobart Mills, worshippers attended services in Truckee, or at times the Truckee Methodist ministers and Catholic priests would hold services at Hobart Mills.Management’s goal was to keep the working men too busy to drink or pray.
The town was originally built for 1,000 people, almost as large as Truckee was in 1897, and with additional housing, grew to house over 1,500 at peak season. It cost more than $250,000 to build the town and the lumber plant, with the improvements and property worth $2 million in 1900 prices.For employee accommodations, SNW&L provided a clean place to live with good meals for a reasonable price. Single men stayed in the hotel, bunkhouses, or in the boarding house. The married men and their families lived in well-kept houses on the neat streets, with their children playing in the yards. The company persuaded as many men as possible to get married, raise families, and made sure they were rewarded for living a productive sober life.Even with plenty of wood-framed houses for those who held the better positions, two suburbs of Hobart Mills grew with the town. Ragtown, just to the southwest, was named because it was a tent city in the summer, but after a long summer, some of the white tents looked more like rags. Flumeville, named for the remains of the nearby abandoned lumber flume, was built by scavengers ripping apart the flume and building shacks out of the lumber.In 1898 the Overton School was built on the northwest side of town. A time capsule was placed in the rocks of the foundation. This was recovered during 1967 by Pat McKendry, who in 2006 donated it to the Truckee District of the Tahoe National Forest. It contained various newspapers of 1897 and ’98, descriptions of Hobart Mills, documents that listed the school teacher, 20 students, and the school board trustees.There were many clubs for the women and children and the social clubs of Truckee welcomed Hobart people. Various clubs were formed, such as a band club, dramatic club, dance classes, Pine Burr club, the Anti-Fats (a walking club), sewing club, auto club, and the most popular and longest lasting, the Housekeepers Club.Even though the company stressed safety and cleanliness, accidents occurred and people got sick. So by 1900 the Hobart Hospital was open and staffed by a doctor and nurse, and until the mill’s closure, a doctor was always on staff to deal with the many industrial injuries. Emergency and routine operations were performed, and Truckee residents were also treated at times, since Truckee didn’t have a hospital until after 1910.
To move the logs from the forests, first oxen and horses, then steam-powered donkey engines skidded them to landings. The logs were loaded onto 3-foot gauge flatcars where a Shay geared engine would take them off the mountain. The light geared locomotive could climb steep grades, turn corners and just about climb the tree itself, allowing for rails to be built into the far corners of the Hobart forests.Once on the main line, a regular rod engine would speed it on its way to the log pond. The first rail lines went up Prosser Creek then later extensions went north to Sagehen Creek, and the Little Truckee River. Mileage varied from season to season, with as much as 25 miles in operation at one time. These narrow gauge lines only operated during the summer logging season.The SNW&L used up to five narrow gauge engines, with one of the three Shays, No. 9, being added in 1913. This locomotive, like the J.W. Bowker, survived the closing in 1936, thanks to George Oliver, and it lives on, still running the rails of Yosemite Mountain & Sugar Pine Railroad near Yosemite.
One of the key resources that Walter Hobart also instructed William Tiffany to buy up with timberlands was the water rights of the streams that flowed east from the Sierra crest. Long before 1897, Hobart was actively defending those water rights, such as in August of 1877, when the gates on the Prosser Creek reservoir for Oliver Lonkey’s Prosser Creek mill were closed, locked and guarded under watch of rifle-toting guards.This forced the closure of the Nevada & California sawmill, with Hobart threatening to blow up the dam unless Lonkey paid for the water rights. The matter was quickly resolved without gunfire or extensive legal wrangling for an undisclosed sum.SNW&L also bought the water rights to Webber Lake and Independence Lake from the Boca Lumber Company. As water demand increased in Nevada, these reservoirs would bring a large profit to the company as they sold the water in dry years to the highest bidder.Hobart also bought the resort at Independence Lake, leasing the popular summer resort to Mrs. Clemmons until 1917 when Mrs. Kenney leased it. Vacationers and Hobart Mills employees often spent summer weekends fishing and boating on the beautiful mountain lake.Once the forest was logged, the openings sprouted new grass and sun loving plants. The land was excellent grazing land for sheep and cattle until new forests sprouted. The land was leased for grazing at a healthy profit. Those who trespassed, such as the three Flanigan brothers in 1897, were promptly arrested, their sheep herds run off, and like the brothers were fined for their transgressions.
W.S. Hobart believed in hiring the best people available, and building loyalties that would last for generations. One example is in Charles Barton, who started as a logging contractor for SNW&L in 1883 at Incline, and was logging in the Hobart Mills forests by 1899. He brought along his sons Charles Jr. and Oren, who was a locomotive engineer for several decades.Barton would continue logging until 1907, then went on to run Corey’s Station, a small company-owned roadhouse located about five miles north of Hobart Mills on the old Sierraville stage road for another decade.Many other veteran lumbermen from all over the region worked at Hobart at one time or another, including George Chubbuck, Robert Gracey, Levi Warren, John Duffy, C.R. “Roddy” McLellan, Howard Batchelder and the Boyington Brothers.When manager J.B. Overton retired in 1900, after fulfilling his agreement to get the new town operating, he was replaced by a veteran Tahoe lumber manager, Charles T. Bliss, formerly of the Glenbrook sawmill operation. Stepping up to superintendent was George D. Oliver. Oliver would move up to manager in 1914 when Bliss left, and he would successfully guide the company and town through the rest of its life.Hobart Mills continued as a town, a society, and a lumber mill until 1936. With the virgin pine timber cut off, the buildings were dismantled over the next few years, ending more than 60 years of the Hobart lumber empire. The Hobart Mills forests, still thriving with second growth trees were sold to the US Forest Service, and the 21,000 acres of Lake Tahoe timberlands were sold to George Whittell.The forests of Lake Tahoe and Truckee provided the lumber needed to develop the west for 60 years. As time goes by, the scars of this great enterprise vanish and only the history remains.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Published July 3, 2007