September 15, 2010

Nevada's Online State News Journal




Nevada History:

[John Brayshaw Kaye, Down a Mountain Flume, The Overland Monthly, January 1892]


1892.] Down a Mountain Flume. 45



            In the summer of 1870 I happened to be in Carson City, Nevada, looking about for something whereby to make a temporary raise, and was offered a position, to take charge of the lower section -- about three and a half miles in length -- of a wood flume, and keep it in repair.

            The flume started at the edge of the valley, about three miles from Carson, and ran winding up the cañons, along and around the rocky spurs, spanning gulches and creeping up the sides of the timbered slopes, until it seemed to lose itself, up and away, six miles distant, among the wooded minor summits of the grand old mountains whose western base forms a part of the shore line of Lake Tahoe, and whose eastern slopes build up the towering and majestic background of Carson and Eagle valleys.

            I had turned a hand to nearly every kind of employment common to the country, in six years of knocking about on the Pacific Coast, but I had never yet helped to operate a wood flume, and as the pay was satisfactory, the employment novel and likely to be exciting, I very promptly accepted the offer. Rolling up my wardrobe and a part of my kit -- a square, a half-ax, a handsaw, a hammer, and chisel – in my blankets, I threw them over my shoulder, and set out at once for my new field of labor.

            The object of the flume was to run cord-wood from the mountains down to the edge of the valley, where a spur from " Bill Sharon's crooked railroad" (as the late Senator's pet project, a railway leading from Carson to Virginia City, was then irreverently called) was laid, so that the wood could be loaded directly on the cars and taken to the mines, quartz mills, and hoisting works, of Virginia, Gold Hill, and Silver City. The flume was a continuous trough, made of two-inch planks, by taking a sixteen inch, and an eighteen inch wide plank, and spiking the latter on to the edge of the former at right angles, thus leaving the sides equal, sixteen inches each, and standing at an angle of forty-five degrees. These boxes, or troughs, were then set, with the corner down, upon cross-ties laid about seven feet apart, and on each cross-tie, under each side of the trough, was fitted a heavy " bracket." The brackets were spiked to the cross-ties, and the sides of the trough spiked to the brackets. The joints were broken over a pair of the brackets, and where a curve was required, it was made by the cut, in joining the ends of the boxes on the brackets. Where the lay of the ground made it possible, the ground was graded and the cross-ties laid directly thereon ; and where there were ravines, or gulches, to span, a trestlework was built, capped, and laid with stringers, on which to rest the cross-ties supporting the troughs. In this way, and by various windings to conform to the sides of the mountain slopes and spurs, something like a uniform grade was established.

            In order to take the "pinch" out of the bottom of the trough, pieces of four inch square timber were taken and sawn in halves from corner to corner, and these halves -- called "diamonds " -- having three sides, were nailed into the bottom of the troughs with the right angle down, thus presenting an upper surface of nearly six inches in width. At every sharp turn in the flume, the boxes forming the curve were lined on the inside with

46 Down a Mountain Flume. [Jan.

plates of iron from one eighth to one fourth inch in thickness, to avoid rapid wearing away by the passing wood. Thus equipped, the flume was ready for use, and had been in use for a short time on the day when I set out to take charge of the " lower section."

            After a tramp of a couple of miles I came to the lower end of the flume, where it emptied its freight into the valley. It was late in the afternoon; the water was still rushing down in a continuous line of foam, and bearing an occasional stick of wood, which shot along like an arrow, but the flume was then " running light," and as I glanced up the heights far ahead of me, I caught glimpses, here and there, of this picturesque water-way, winding in and out among the mountain slopes, till it seemed to me like some mountain serpent, gliding from its alpine fastnesses to the valley below.

            After toiling up some three miles farther, following for the most part the mountain grade, or wagon way, that ran in a general parallel course with the flume, I came to our camp, which was at the upper end of my section. This was general headquarters for our loggers, teamsters, choppers, sawyers, and flume men ; and here there was a saw mill driven by a sparkling mountain stream, which was conducted to the summit of a tall, narrow overshot wheel, and laughed and frolicked as it leaped into the buckets and let itself down, setting the mill "carriage" in motion, and the keen circular saws a-humming through the bodies of the yellow pine logs, and then gliding away again on the lower level, as if rather pleased with its passing labor. But it did not get far before its beauty was sadly marred by a little side-sluice discharging into it a stream of sawdust, chips, and bits of bark, from the mill. The mill was used at this time only in sawing material to repair the flume, and to build " dry chutes," etc., to be used in connection with it. I reached this camp about dusk and was welcomed by the " boys " as the " boss of the lower section."

            After supper at the camp boarding house, the boys began to turn in. Some had little cabins here and there, but many slept out in the starlight under the great towering evergreens, -- and being a new comer, I was among the latter. I scraped together a quantity of pine needles, to which I added a sort of top dressing of leafy green fir twigs, then I spread over these my blankets, and lay down to rest.

            Two mountain rills that found a junction just below us laughed, and shouted, and sang such a delightful duet, as they danced and tumbled down the steeps; the tall pines and firs sighed such a sweet dreamy refrain to the breeze, and lent such a grateful balsamic odor to the pure mountain air, that I was soon lulled and soothed into such a slumber as a king might envy, but can never enjoy without quitting for a time the cares of his kingdom and the couch of his palace.

            Next morning I awoke as a child awakens, all at once, and lay for a few minutes absorbed in the glorious transfiguration going on around me, -- the coming from darkness into light, the opening and unfolding of a new day in the mountains. The gray valley away below was just dimly outlined in the coming dawn; Carson City lay nestled close at the mountains' feet, and farther out in the valley, where the Carson River takes a bold sweep down from the southwest, to escape through the gap left in the Nut-Pine Mountains for it, the village of Empire City lay cozily, as yet unawakened, on the nearest bank; while directly across the valley, like an opposing rampart, brown and barren from the extinct volcanic fires of ages and ages ago, loomed up the mountains of the Washoe Range, scalloping the crimsoning horizon to the east with their hoary summits.

            Chief among these, and well to the

1892.] Down a Mountain Flume. 47

north, the rocky crown of old Mount Davidson was dimly discernible, and my eyes and memory rested on the very spot on which, years before, after hours of climbing I had stood, and looked down enraptured upon what seemed to me the most wonderful scene in the world. It was a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants, the buildings clinging like a cluster of barnacles midway up the eastern slope of the mountain, -- a city full of life and activity, of wild hopes and bitter disappointments ; -- while away down below it all, was stretched out from the mountain's base a vast expanse of weary, silent desert. This was Virginia City, the Potosi of the North Continent; for there, cropping out above the surface, reaching to unknown depths, running along the mountain side and under the very streets of the city, was the famous Comstock Lode, a veritable wall of riches, then daily turning out massive ingots of gold and silver into the lap of the nation.

            After thus musing, and enjoying for a time the breaking of the dawn, I arose, dressed myself, and turning to the summits behind and to the west of me, saw the first message of the sun, -- a mellow glimmer of sunshine just alighting on the tallest peak; for there the morning was well along before the sunlight could be seen over the Washoe Range to the east.

            By the time the sunshine had slipped down as far as our camp, breakfast was over, and we were ready to go to work. Contrary to my expectations, I did not take charge of the " lower section " that day, but helped to do some repairing on the upper part of the flume ; and indeed for the next week or ten days we were all hands getting a good ready. A dry chute was built, running up a steep mountain, at nearly right angles to the flume, to a kind of tableland, or bench, about three fourths of a mile distant. This work of art took half a dozen of us with a force of forty Chinamen, more than a week to build. It was intended to run wood dry into the flume, and the way it ran the wood " dry " was a sight to behold. The sticks came sailing down in a way that was simply terrific. Now and then one would keep the track, but the great majority would rise from the chute and skim down through the air like "flying fishes pursued by a dolphin," but they generally alighted outside of the chute, and if they struck a stump, or a rock, were smashed into splinters. A small part of the wood kept in the chute until it came to the curve that was to conduct it around into a position almost parallel with the flume, so that it might be discharged therein. But this wood, coming down the mountain upwards of half a mile, at a pitch of about forty degrees, refused to deviate from a straight line, and when it came to the curve, which was established on a high trestle, it promptly leaped overboard and went crashing into the ravine below. The German "civil enchineer " that had charge of this part of the construction vigorously insisted that it was laid on the proper " cheometrical curf" and that he 'd " be blamed if I know how the vood can get oud," -- but " get oud " it did with the very least perceptible delay.

            To obviate destruction of the wood that skipped out on the way down, the Chinamen were set to work and dug out all the stumps and trees, and moved all the rocks, that could be moved within a couple of rods of the chute on either side, and the " proper cheometrical curf" was roofed over with planks. The first project was a success, and saved many cords of wood, but the chute had not been running two hours before the roof of that " curf" looked as if a fleet of monitors had been making a target of it at short range. As a dry chute this structure was almost a failure ; but our " civil enchineer" as a last resort, conducted and

48 Down a Mountain Flume. [Jan.

turned into it a stream of water which he found up on the bench, thus making a flume of it, when it worked tolerably well ; though considerable of the wood still leaped out.

            During that first week I had occasion to climb up to the very head of the upper section of the flume, and there caught a fine view of a portion of the work that was before us. Quite a number of white men and a whole host of Chinamen had been felling the great pines and firs, and sawing and splitting away up there during all the past winter and spring ; many were at it still, and there, all around, above and below me, and on either side, on the slopes and plateaus, and in the ravines, in long ricks and wooden walls, was gathered and corded the result of their labors, -- thirty thousand cords of wood, the reaped harvest of the mountain forest. Much of this wood had been sledded to the sides of the flume ready to be thrown in, and the work was rapidly progressing. The troughs, or feeders, which brought two mountain streams from opposite directions to the flume, had been laid for some time, and were so arranged that the water could be turned off or on at will. As I stood looking over the vast amount of wood in sight, I could scarcely realize that within the next five months, it would all, and as much more, be transferred to the valley below, down this insignificant looking gutter.

            In a couple of days after this journey to the head of the upper section everything had been gotten in ship shape. A flag with halyards reaching to the ground was rigged on a staff fixed to the top of a tall pine tree near the upper end of the lower section, so that by running it up we could signal the men on the upper section when to turn off the water, or stop throwing in wood. Our men were assigned different divisions along the flume ; the water was turned on ; crews, stationed at different points for that purpose, began to throw in the wood, and business on the flume began in earnest. It was an inspiring sight to see the wood come gliding and winding swiftly down, sometimes from five to eight sticks abreast, completely filling the flume, and reaching back for half a mile without a break ; the water spurting and jetting over the sides of the boxes, and the whole long and apparently living mass glancing almost irresistibly down to the valley.

            For the first mile, the upper section was almost as steep as the dry chute before mentioned, but it was as straight as an arrow. The water when turned into it instantly whitened to foam, but swiftly as the water went, the wood when thrown into it traveled at a still greater speed, and a heavy stick would carry ahead of it a regular flying fountain of spurting jets. A luckless Chinaman was instantly killed by one of these wooden bolts flying from the flume one day and striking him as he was passing near. In this part of the flume, then, it was practically impossible to fill the boxes with wood, so swiftly did it shoot away as soon as dropped in. But wood was thrown in at other points on the way down, so that before it reached the lower section it generally gathered into jams. One of these often filled the flume for a long distance without a break ; while at other times the jam would be shorter, with breaks, or intervals, without wood between. The water supply was kept full by lateral feeders on the way down.

            On reaching the valley the flume forked into several branches, each built on a tall trestle, and emptying on a roof-shaped iron grating, through which the water fell directly, while the wood was cast off at some distance on either side. When a great bank of wood had thus accumulated about one of these trestles, the coming wood was switched off on another, while a gang of Chinamen was loading the first lot on the cars of the "crooked railroad."

1892.] Going Down a Mountain Flume. 49

            I had only been a few hours on the lower section, when I was informed that there were several men in our camp who could ride in the flume, -- leap upon a passing jam of wood as it went rushing and seething by, maintain their balance, and go winding down the mountains and over gulches like a flash of light ; and I was further told that when going down to Carson some of these men traveled down to the edge of the valley in that way. I was incredulous. It did not seem to me possible that any one could load himself and keep his equilibrium on a thin line of wood, gliding down the narrow trough at the rate of thirty to forty miles an hour, around curves, and over many stretches of trestle-work, one of which was several hundred feet in length, and sixty feet above the center of the gulch which it bridged. I was soon convinced, however, by seeing it done.

            I envied these bold navigators, and closely observed their tactics, resolving that soon I would make a desperate attempt to travel in the flume myself ; for it seemed to me to be the most exciting and exhilarating mode of locomotion I had ever witnessed ; besides, it would save me many steps in my daily round of inspection to the lower end. But still I hesitated.

            After being in camp more than a month, I had occasion to go down to Carson, so putting on my "boiled" shirt, best pants, and a long linen duster, -- a fine rig for a wood camp, -- I started out directly after dinner on a lovely summer day for the valley. About a mile down I struck the flume at a point beyond the tallest trestle; a point where there was less fall than at any other place in the entire length of the flume. All of a sudden it occurred to me that this was a capital time and place to undertake the ride. If successful, it would save me a long walk, afford something to tell the boys about next day and prove by an exhibition of suddenly acquired skill. All this time there was ringing in my ears that Byronic and misleading proposition, -- " What man has done, man can do," : -- a proposition that has brought many a young man to at least temporary humiliation.

            I glanced hastily up the flume. As far as I could see it was then running light, the water was low, and the speed of the wood consequently much reduced. At length I saw a cozy little jam coming gliding down. Here was my opportunity. I looked hurriedly around; there was no one in sight, -- a special providence. I wished no human eye but my own to witness my first -- triumph. I was resolved. The flume at this point was laid on the surface of the ground, so I ran briskly along side of it, and as the jam was passing, I leaped, alighting on my hands and feet on the wood, near the rear of the jam, so that there were but a few straggling sticks behind me. I kept my balance, I maintained my position, and glided along as gracefully as a swan might skim the glassy surface of a lake. I was actually riding in the flume, and was inwardly exultant, almost wishing, for a moment, that there had been some one to behold the success of my venture.

            Suddenly I detected a well known hissing and rubbing sound, and casting an anxious glance over my shoulder, I saw, shooting around a bold cape behind me, a jam of wood, fully eighty rods in length, shooting down upon me like an avalanche, the water bubbling and spurting over the sides of the flume, and the whole coming down at a rate of speed at least double my own. I realized that there might be trouble in the rear; but I would keep cool, receive the shock, and shoot along at the very head and front of this wooden tempest, -- so I resolved.

            I did it, -- for a while. The long jam was upon me in an instant. The scattering sticks just behind me were,

50        Down a Mountain Flume. [Jan.

like a flash, ended up and pitched overboard ; the little huddle of sticks on which I was squatted was struck with such terrific force as to drive it from under me in a twinkling, and leave me sitting flat in the bottom of the flume, feet foremost, with several jets of water spurting over my head and shoulders, and about twenty-five cords of wood pushing at the small of my back, and stretching like a waving tail far to the rear, as I went shooting down like a terrestrial comet.

            It was a most exciting and unique ride, but I was not happy. My overwrought imagination pictured reversed splinters and upstanding nail heads in the bottom of the flume, the passing over which might be particularly unpleasant; and although I have likened myself unto a comet, I felt miserably conscious, that, notwithstanding I was at the front of the procession, and therefore apparently the head of the comet, the order of nature was reversed in my case, and instead of my dragging a tail, the tail was pushing me helplessly and irresistibly down along my unaccustomed orbit.

            I determined to disembark as soon as practicable ; but from my peculiar position this was even more difficult than to get aboard. I could not take hold of the flume to help myself; there was a power behind me that admitted of no such expedient. My velocity was such, in connection with my position, that I had not the shadow of a chance to gather myself for a spring; so, waiting till I reached a place where the flume was only about four feet above the ground, I leaned over sidewise until gravitation kindly plucked me from my peril and dropped me and rolled me into a humiliated and water-soaked heap.

            I got up and looked about. There was still no person in sight; a fact for which I was more truly gratified than I had been even just before embarking. I wondered how I could have been such an idiot as to fool around the flume at such a time; for I was now in a sorry plight to proceed to town. But I could never turn back; that was settled. Such a course would involve an explanation, -- a thing not to be thought of. There was a little grove of young pines near by, and into its shelter and seclusion I took myself, stripped off my clothes, wrung the water out of them as well as I could, and then shaking them, and pulling out the wrinkles, to the best of my ability, I arrayed myself once more and continued my journey afoot. I carefully avoided meeting any one, walked at a moderate gait, and by the time I reached Carson my clothes were almost dry, but terribly bedraggled looking. I took on the air of a travel-worn pedestrian, such as I supposed would match the appearance of my apparel, and did not return to camp till the ''dark of the day."

            Next morning I was at my post, and nobody the wiser for my little experience on the flume. I had a fixed determination to master the navigation of that flume, however, and went at it immediately. Once, twice, thrice, I leaped on, but was each time ingloriously pitched out again, with a few resulting scratches and bruises. But in the fourth attempt I was successful, and took a two-mile ride that compensated me for all my previous failures. From that day I had no further difficulty, and was a constant traveler on the flume while I remained.

            For nearly five months we kept a stream of cordwood shooting down the valley, the run frequently amounting to upwards of five hundred cords in a day. Occasionally there would be a break in the flume, and when this occurred on one of the trestles, the wood and water, dashing down among the timbers, would make sad havoc before the flume emptied itself, after the signal to turn off had been given. Then all hands were set to work on the repairs, and it seldom took more than half a day to get things in shape again.

            The ordinary inside repairs -- repla-

1892.] Down a Mountain Flume. 51

cing worn-out boxes, and diamonds, and ironing the curves were generally made at night. Then the water was turned off, our crews went to the defective points, which were generally marked during the day, and in this way, by lantern-light, the flume was put in order for next day's work; so that little running time was lost.

            Taking all things together, I never enjoyed life more fully than during that season of wood fluming in the mountains. But, the "season" came abruptly to a close. One evening early in December, two sleek shoats that had run about the camp all summer and fall were noticed holding up their snouts and snuffing the air in a suspicious and uneasy manner. " Old Blucher," one of our teamsters, said there was a big storm coming, that the hogs smelt it, and would soon start for the valley unless restrained. Several other old mountaineers of the camp joined in Blucher 's opinion, and sure enough, next morning, a heavy covering of snow dressed the mountains; the thermometer had gone down to zero; the hogs were nowhere to be seen, they had gone down to the valley. Winter had come down upon us in the night, and with his icy keys had locked the flume, so nothing remained but to follow the example of the swine.

            There was a grand gathering and rolling up of blankets and extra clothing, preparatory to breaking camp. Hood, the chief of the camp, who used to relate how he " fit" with old " Kit " in the war; Helm, the head sawyer; Big Ramus, of the upper section; Thede, the Canadian Frenchman, and Frank, a native of the Azores, -- flume men; Old Blucher, the teamster, and Charley, the Chinese cook, who by the way, was a very intelligent heathen, liked by all the boys for his excellent cooking and uniformly good temper, -- were among the last to abandon the crackling fire of pitchy logs, that blazed in the great fire-place of the old boarding house. Before doing so, the parting song and story went round ; but despite the tones of joviality, there seemed to be a just perceptible underdrift of sadness in it all, -- a shadow of the breaking up of camp, which was only dispelled when, on Old Blucher's invitation, we climbed aboard of his ten-mule " mountain schooner," and with locked wheels went plowing down through the loose snow on the mountain grade.

John Brayshaw Kaye.