Weather Window: Wild water, splintered boats and terrified men in Tahoe |

Weather Window: Wild water, splintered boats and terrified men in Tahoe

Community submitted photo/Harper's Weekly, June 2,Shooting a flume back in the day was daring, dangerous and magazine material.

TAHOE, Calif. andamp;#8212; Every year, mountain bikers flock to Lake Tahoeandamp;#8217;s East Shore, eager to ride the old Flume Trail. This narrow pathway hugs the steep west slope of the Carson range overlooking the lake. The first flume in the eastern Sierra was built in 1869 to move timber efficiently down to the Nevada valley floor where it could be hauled to the bustling Comstock mines. The long, winding flumes were built in sections tight enough to hold water and strong enough to carry heavy logs up to 40 feet long. In some of the steeper areas, loggers used dry chutes to move the timber. These were made of cut-out logs that were firmly staked to the ground and greased daily. The dry chutes were shorter than the water flumes, but the big logs flashed down so quickly that the friction often produced a bright trail of sparks, flames and smoke.By 1879 there were 10 flumes operating in the region totaling more than 80 miles in length. One of the most spectacular flumes was owned by the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. It wound its way for 15 miles before ending near the Virginia andamp; Truckee Railroad tracks. An engineering marvel in its day, this massive flume was owned jointly by four wealthy Comstock moguls, James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William Oandamp;#8217;Brien. Called the Bonanza V Flume, construction required two million feet of timber and 56,000 pounds of nails, but it was built in only 10 weeks. In 1875, H.J. Ramsdell, a New York Tribune reporter, was out on assignment, touring the various mining operations. When Ramsdell asked how the timber was transported out of the mountains, John Mackay suggested a visit to the flume. Once there, the men challenged Ramsdell to join them in a trip down the flume by hog trough, a crude narrow boat, 16 feet long with a V-shaped keel. The 200-pound reporter could not believe what he was hearing, but he thought, andamp;#8220;If men worth 25 to 30 million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine which is not worth half as much.andamp;#8221; For a bit of comfort, two small boards were installed as seats.The men were well-dressed, but not concerned about their clothes or their lives. While stout workmen held the two boats over the rushing current, the daring city slickers were told to jump in as soon as the boats were dropped. They were also warned that: andamp;#8220;A flume has no element of safety. You cannot stop, you cannot lessen your speed; you have only to sit still, shut your eyes, say your prayers, take all the water that comes andamp;#8230; and wait for eternity.andamp;#8221; The boat was lowered and suddenly they were off. When the terrified reporter finally opened his eyes, they were already streaking down the mountainside. The trestle was 70 feet high in some places. Since Ramsdell was lying down, he could see only the aerial flume stretching for miles ahead. The second boat crashed into the first and Flood was thrown into the rushing water. The tangled confusion of splintered wood and terrified men slid 15 miles in just 35 minutes, scaring the daylight out of them but saving themselves a whole day of traveling by horse-drawn carriage.Reporter Ramsdell was able to write a good story, but his main satisfaction came from the fact that his wealthy hosts were so battered and sore, they could not get out of bed the next day.andamp;#8212;Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning Tahoe history books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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