LUMBER FLUME DOMINATED COUNTY
By Dwight Barnes
For more than half a century a long wooden structure not only dominated life in the town which became Oakhurst, but also determined how the County of Madera would grow.
Started in 1874, the lumber flume, a man-made v-shaped wooden stream, stretched from the mountains to the railroad in the San Joaquin Valley, a distance of more than 50 miles. Using cuts and trestles, the flume was engineered to maintain a steady flow of water by gravity during a drop of nearly 4,000 feet in elevation.
In the days when roads were few and far between and transportation was limited to wagons pulled by horses, mules or oxen, there was no practical alternative to moving logs or volumes of lumber from the mountains to the railroad in valleys such as the San Joaquin. In the East and Pacific Northwest, logs were floated from the woods to mills on rivers, but Sierra Nevada streams, dependent upon snow melt, fluctuated too much to be dependable.
William Thurman, who later was elected sheriff of Madera County when it split from Fresno County in 1893, conceived the idea of building a mill in the hills and floating rough cut lumber to a finishing mill near the railroad.
Originally, the head of the flume was at the California Lumber Company mill in Gooseberry Flat, just above the Calvin Crest turnoff on the road to Fresno Dome and Quartz Mountain, an extension of Sky Ranch Road. The valley terminal was to be at Borden, described once as the "metropolis of Fresno County."
There are a couple of explanations as to why it ended up four miles to the north in Madera, a town that really didn't exist at the time. For one, ranchers W. S. Chapman and Isaac Friedlander, who owned the land where the town was to be built, offered free land for construction of the town and the finishing mill. Borden made no such offer. There also was an indication that there was a small rise in elevation between the two locations which would complicate continuation of the gravity flow of water in the flume.
Historian Charles W. Clough described the site of the future town of Madera as a "barren, dry waste and with the exception of a straggling growth of wild oats was entirely devoid of verdure," adding "there was not a sign of a dwelling here or any place this side of Borden."
` During the two years that it took to construct the flume, virtually all of the lumber produced at the Gooseberry Flat mill went into the project. The flume was built from the top down, with lumber and materials floated down the flume to the construction site. Even the workers used the flume riding on home made "boats." The V-shaped flume was five feet across at the top, but the water level was maintained only part way up. (A section of the flume has been preserved at Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historical Park.)
When completed, some 130,000 board feet of lumber could be floated each day to the finishing mill where it would be converted into doors, sashes, cabinets and other mill work and finished lumber for shipment throughout the nation.
At the mountain mill, lumber of various sizes were sorted and clamped together before launching into the flume, which dropped down precipitously from Gooseberry Flats to the first "station" at Salt Springs. This, the uppermost station on the flume, was located at the north edge of what today is Oakhurst. From there it followed the Fresno River for much of its route to Madera. Along the way, flume stations were established to monitor the process of the lumber – Poison Switch, Confidence, Zuber, Ellerbrook, Canyon, French Graveyard, The Hump, Ralls, China Store, 12 mile, 6 mile and 4 mile.
Each was staffed by a man to keep the lumber moving. During the steep drop from the mill to Salt Springs, the lumber was shipped in single bundles. There flume tenders tied several bundles together before letting them go on down. At subsequent stations down the line, more bundles were connected so that by the time the lumber reached the mill, the "train" could be miles long.
Stations were connected by telephone. When a "train" of lumber failed to arrive on time, tenders upstream could hold oncoming lumber while the flume tender found where things were jammed up.
In 1899, the Madera-Sugar Pine Lumber Company acquired the mills and flume and shifted the mountain mill to Sugar Pine where some of the buildings still are used as summer cabins and homes. The flume was relocated from Salt Springs to Sugar Pine following Lewis Creek. The operation continued until the company failed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.