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West Side Flume and Lumber Company

 

Overview and History of the West Side Flume & Lumber Company

1899 – 1962

 

 

Early photograph of the West Side Lumber Company Mill

 

Prior to 1891 a number of small logging and sawmill operations were scattered throughout the forest in the high country of Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties.  An estimated two dozen logging businesses existed and operated unchecked by any boundaries until it was recognized that logging was a threat to the Yosemite area.  The U. S. Congress passed a law to create, “reserved forest lands" restricting logging operations.

 

The Organic Act of 1897 had authorized timber sales on forest reserves within the boundaries of government owned timber lands administered by the Stanislaus Forest Reserve.  The Secretary of the Interior was charged to set rules for appraisals of timber values for sale to privately owned companies.  This became a complex process that worked and evolved over a period of two decades.

 

Modern lumber companies seeking large scale operations were revamping the old logging concepts and transportation.  Rail lines replaced the old methods of transportation of wagons and animals, floating logs down flumes, and the use of traction machines that could drag logs to the mills.  Mills in the high country relocated downhill to a central location using a transportation system to move logs through a network of rail lines.  Log ponds were used as drop off collection points closer to sawmills and lumber finishing plants, such as box factories and window and door fabrication facilities.  A central location allowed day and night operations.  Summer harvesting and winter milling activities allowed year-round operations.

 

Several major transportation capabilities were constructed in the late 1890s in Tuolumne County.  The Sierra Railway standard gauge (4’-8½”) was incorporated on February 1, 1897.  On November 10, 1897, the first train arrived in Jamestown from Oakdale, connecting Tuolumne County to the National Rail Network.  The founders, Thomas S. Bullock, Prince André Poniatowski, and William Crocker intended to provide freight and passenger service to the hard rock gold mines in Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties, which led to the Angels Branch line.  The Angles Camp service started in 1902 and ceased operations in 1935.

 

 

The founders of the Sierra Railway were also interested in moving logs and finished lumber throughout Tuolumne County and exporting goods to other states and countries. William Crocker investigated timber operations going toward Yosemite, searching for sawmill locations near the projected extensions of the Sierra Railway. The Sierra line was extended during 1899 to just beyond the city limits of Sonora and continued heading toward Summersville-Carter area (later renamed Tuolumne).

 

The first major logging and lumber company in Tuolumne County, West Side Flume & Lumber Company, reincorporated in 1899 by William and Henry J. Crocker, Andre Poniatowski, and Thomas S. Bullock formed the company after acquiring 55,000 acres of prime sugar and ponderosa pine timberland, east of Summersville-Carter area. A 550-acre portion of the Baker Ranch was purchased in 1897, for a large sawmill with drying sheds, storage yards, and a future box factory. Turnback Creek was dammed to create a large pond for log storage. A rail yard and “company town” was laid out in the neighboring town of Carter.

 

On February 1, 1900, the Sierra Railway arrived in Carter township, its final terminus. A Sierra Railway depot was added on the north end of town near a “common” or plaza area.  A large hotel facility, the Turnback Inn, was planned by Thomas Bullock to the south of town to support the anticipated tourism industry. The West Side Flume & Lumber Company’s three foot narrow gauge railway was incorporated on August 28, 1900, as a Common Carrier Railroad and named the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railway Company of California. The railway used geared locomotives, both Heisler1 and Shay types.2

 

The following is taken from Chispa, The Quarterly of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, Vol. 18, No. 4, “West Side Revisited,” by Mallory Hope Ferrell:

 

Between 1899 and 1901, four narrow gauge Heisler locomotives were ordered to power the railroad.  The original incorporators envisioned passenger service to the then developing tourist areas of Yosemite and the spectacular Hetch Hetchy Canyon…

 

Despite the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valleys railways grand plans, the line quickly settled for a more mundane occupation of log hauling.  A passenger train was operated three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday) until August, 1904, when the passenger coach was taken off and placed on a siding at Nashton.

 

The railroad was surveyed by William H. Newell and left Carters [sic] following the Tuolumne River Canyon on a 4.8% grade for two miles then dropped down a 1% grade for four miles before starting a 1% climb to reach the North Fork of the Tuolumne River crossing and the edge of the giant stands of timber.  Newell designed the 300’ long River Bridge, with its two curved approaches and a straight section in the center that carried the West Side Flume & Lumber Company’s rails some 62’ above the river.  This crossing, at mile post 7, was a favorite with photographers for as long as the trains ran.

 

The first logging and railroad construction camp was established at mile post 11 and named Nashton.  George Nash was in charge of the gangs of Chinese laborers who were involved in track construction.  A car shop, construction headquarters, school, post office, boarding house, and loggers’ cabins were built at Nashton.  It was here, too, that the original disconnected logging cars were built from parts supplied by the Carter Brothers Car Company at Newark, California.  These disconnected log cars were used during the 1899-1902 logging seasons.

 

W.S.F.&L. ordered 16 of the 24’ long Carter Brothers flatcars between 1899-1901 and built still more in their own shops between 1901-1930, using parts cast from the Carter Brothers patterns and others supplied by the California Car Works…  Center beams of wood were mated to metal hardware and castings by the James Graham Company; a pair of 26” diameter wheels were added and the truck was complete on the spot….

 

Track laying was handled by a small H. K. Porter 0-4-0T engine that was obtained second hand, from the American River Land & Lumber Company (later Michigan-California Lumber Company).  The small saddle tanker was equipped with a four-wheel tender, homemade in the company shops of wood.  The engine was called “Fido,” and in one of the few photographs of this engine to come to light, she also bore the number 100 chalked in freehand on her front number plate.  The “Fido” was too light to be used for much more than construction work and was soon joined by “Star,” a Baldwin 0-6-0T that was obtained from the Ruby Hill Railroad in Nevada.  “Star” also received a home built tender and was used to switch the Tuolumne mill pond trackage….

 

After the rails reached Nashton (mile post 11) in 1899, the Heislers were put to work hauling logs to the still incomplete mill at Tuolumne.  Track work to this point had taken most of the summer…Out in the woods, rails were pushed as far as Camp Nine by the logging season’s end.  The following year, 1902, saw logging out of Camp 12 near 5,435’ Duckwall Mountain and some 17 rail miles from Tuolumne.

 

In June, 1903, the West Side Flume & Lumber Company was sold, along with the railroad, to a group of Ashland, Wisconsin, lumbermen headed by J. R. Prince and George W. Johnson.  W. R. Thorsen, a Manistee, Michigan, steel tycoon, had joined the Wisconsin lumbermen and the new firm was incorporated as the West Side Flume & Lumber Company.3  A new Shay locomotive was received for the logging railroad (#5).

 

The equipment of the West Side Lumber Company at this time consisted of eight locomotives, 150 log cars and one passenger coach.  Camp 11 was worked during the summer of 1903 and was moved as logging progressed for the next nine years.  Camp 12 was also in full swing in Willow Meadow and spur tracks were spiked down to within “spitting distance” (a quarter of a mile) of Deadwood.  Camp 13 was up near Duckwall Mountain in 1904.  Summersville and Carters [sic] were officially merged, and the town was listed on U. S. Post Office maps as Tuolumne…  During this period, West Side also ceased using the disconnect log trucks.  These disconnects appear in early-day logging scenes and were not very popular or long-lived on the West Side trackage.  They were retired in favor of the 24’ flats….

 

The railroad itself consisted of 40-pound rails spiked to six-foot-long, untreated cedar crossties on a dirt or natural rock roadbed.  In 1904, there were 18 miles of railroad that had been hacked out by George Nash’s oriental crews with the aid of blasting powder, horses and scrapers.  The Chinese crews were being replaced by whites and Indians, and a new car shop was built in Tuolumne.  A two-track engine house had been built close to the mill pond in 1900.  Passenger service ended that year, and the old coach sat at Nashton until it was destroyed by a fire that swept the camp.  The Tuolumne mill was turning out 90,000 board feet of California ponderosa and sugar pine, white fir and incense cedar each working day, and the bars in town were active around the clock.

 

In 1906, Fred Ellis joined the West Side Lumber Company, and he stayed with it until the final log was cut.  A Tennessee school teacher, Ellis rose through the ranks from laborer on a track gang to surveyor, engineer, and in 1942 took over as President and General Manager following the death of W. R. Thorsen.  Ellis was in charge of laying out over 250 miles of railroad in the Tuolumne timber, as new spurs were spiked down with each passing logging season.  He also designed the 312’ long, 76’ high Clavey Bridge that was built near mile post 38 in 1917.  As the logging line grew longer and the mill output was increased, the demand for heavier motive mower was felt.  Three truck Shay No. 8 was built for the firm in 1922, with the No. 9 arriving the following year.  The No. 8 turned over on her first trip, and Lima representatives had to come out to rework the engine.  After that she worked fine, but for the meantime, the No. 8 sported a heavy cast weight on her right side.  No. 10, a heavier three-truck engine, arrived in 1928 and was the last new locomotive.

 

In March, 1925, the Pickering Lumber Company purchased the West Side Lumber Company and Shay No. 10 arrived in Pickering lettering.  In December, 1930, Pickering shut down the Tuolumne operation due to the depression, and it did not reopen for four years.  In July 1934, West Side Lumber Company resumed operations again under independent4 ownership.  The reopening was aided by a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan, and a week-long celebration was held by everyone in Tuolumne….

 

Link and pin couplers had been standard equipment on West Side since 1899.  In 1940, the extensive logging trackage of the Swayne Lumber Company of Oroville, California, was abandoned.  West Side Lumber Company purchased 99 of the automatic coupler, twin air brake-equipped Swayne logging cars along with a pair of tiny cabooses, some work equipment, and superheated, three truck Shay No. 12.  Also obtained that year were two other three truck Shays from the abandoned Hobart Estate Company’s narrow gauge out of Hobart Mills, California, north of Lake Tahoe.  Fred Ellis also added to West Side’s roster with the purchase of a number of extra trucks, wheelsets, and journal boxes from the abandoned Pacific Coast Railroad.  These were used to build new skeleton log cars.

 

The new equipment brought about a number of operating changes on the West Side Lumber Company Narrow Gauge Railroad, as the line was officially known…  The new Swayne cars were longer than the old West Side 24’ cars, being 38’ long.  This allowed logs to be bucked to 32’ lengths as opposed to the former maximum of 16’.  The new equipment had an odd combination of straight and automatic air brakes for double safety on the grades.  This accounts for the two air hoses on later West Side cars.

 

The railroad reached its greatest length during the 1949 cutting season when the rails extended to within a mile and a half of Yosemite National Park, some 72 rail miles from Tuolumne.  In March, 1958, the Pickering Lumber Corporation again took over operations at West Side.  Following the Pickering take over, the railroad was cut back to mile post 49, near Niagara Bridge.  The following year trackage was further reduced back to Buffalo Landing near the Clavey River, leaving only 38 miles of line in operation.  Camp 45 and Niagara were the last camps built for railroad logging.

 

The West Side narrow gauge operated normally throughout the 1960 season hauling logs from truck reload points to the Tuolumne mill pond.  Engineer Leland “Shorty” Maddox finished out the season when he tied up with Engine No. 10 on the last log train on October 28.  On November 1, 1960, Maddox with Shay No. 10; Leonard Ames, fireman; Jack Neil, conductor; and brakemen Harry Cyphers and Bob McKay took out a string of empties and the logging season ended on schedule at 1:30 that afternoon when they drifted back into the yards and spotted the engine on a siding, killing the fire.  Little did anyone know at that time that this was the last logging season for West Side’s railroad.

 

The Pickering Board of Directors, meeting in Kansas City, decided to convert to “Gypo” (truck contract) logging for the 1961 season, leaving the railroad in place for one year as an insurance against the chance that the trucks would not work out to the company’s satisfaction.  The last runs were made on June 6-7, 1961, with Shay No. 14 bringing in stored equipment from Camp 24.

 

Heisler No. 3, converted to standard gauge in 1947, continued to switch the Tuolumne mill until it, too, was closed by a strike on April 19, 1962.  During the strike the mill was destroyed by a fire that followed prolonged and unproductive negotiations, while a dynamite blast dumped tons of rock on the tracks at Big Rock Cut.  This prevented scrapping of rails from Big Rock Cut to River Bridge.  Following the strike, West Side’s little Plymouth locomotive removed the four miles of trackage from Baker Siding, one mile east of Tuolumne, to the dynamited cut.  Trucks were used to remove the rails from River Bridge to the woods.  The West Side Lumber Company was dead.

 

1 Heisler engine (geared locomotive) originally built by Stearns Manufacturing Company in 1899; later this company became the Heisler Locomotive Works in Erie, Pennsylvania.

2 Shay engine (geared locomotive) built by Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio.

3  This should actually be West Side Lumber Company.

4 WSLC resumed operations again under its original ownership.

 

References:

Conners, Pamela A., The Sugar Pine Railway-History of a Sierran Logging Railroad.  Stanislaus National Forest, 1997.

Deane, Dorothy Newell, Sierra Railway.  Berkeley, California: Howell-North, 1960.

Ferrell, Mallory Hope, Narrow Gauge in the Sierra.  Edmonds, Washington: Pacific Fast Mail, 1992.

Ferrell, Mallory Hope, West Side Pictorial.  Forest Park, Illinois: Heimburger House Publishing Company, 2000.

Ferrell, Mallory Hope, “West Side Revisited,” Chispa, The Quarterly of the Tuolumne County Historical Society.  Vol. 18, No. 4, April-June, 1979.

Francis, Mark Steven, Bradford and Story – The Birth of the West Side 1889-1904, Wheelhorse Press, 2016.

French, Gerald, When Steam Was King, Petaluma, California: Eureka Publishing, 2006.

Johnston, Hank, Yosemite’s Yesterdays.  Palm Springs, California: Flying Spur Press, 1989.

Krieg, Allan, Last of the 3 Foot Loggers. San Marino, California: Golden West Books, 1962.

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