Flume to Madera

Nuggets from the Past

January 7, 2011 

In 2001, Dwight H. Barnes authored a book titled "Miners, Lumberjacks and Cowboys: A History of Eastern Madera County." At the time, Barnes was the historian for the Sierra Historic Sites Association. Chapter 5 gives a most interesting history of the flume that traveled from above Oakhurst to Madera.

As he tells it..."For more than half a century, a long wooden structure not only dominated the life of the town that became Oakhurst, but also determined how the yet-to-be-created County of Madera would grow."

William H. Thurman conceived the idea of building his own river, a V-shaped wooden flume that originated high in the mountains and terminated in the San Joaquin Valley beside the railroad. Instead of logs, Thurman floated rough-cut boards from a mountain mill to the valley where a new mill would finish them into saleable lumber of all sizes and types.

Begun in 1874, the lumber flume stretched for more than 50 miles and was believed to be the longest flume in the world at that time. It was a major engineering feat to provide a steady, down-stream grade so that the lumber would flow the entire distance by gravity.

Over the years there were several "heads" of the flume -- as more mills were built upstream the flume was extended. Ultimately with the founding of the Madera Sugar Pine Company in 1899, the flume was rebuilt and routed to the town of Sugar Pine.

The flume was V-shaped about five feet across and three feet deep. It was built in 16-foot sections. During the two years it took to build the initial structure, virtually all the production of the California Lumber Company mill, primarily cedar, was used. As construction progressed downstream, more lumber, materials and supplies were floated from the mill to construction crews.

The flume followed the Fresno River, and today pieces of it may still be seen. At the end of the line, a mill and lumberyard were developed in what was to become the town of Madera, the Spanish word for lumber...the flume played a significant role in the life of Madera County.

It took many men, 'flume herders,' scattered from Sugar Pine to Madera to keep the lumber moving. They were located at a series of stations starting at Salt Springs on the north edge of the town then called Fresno Flats.

Between Salt Springs and Madera were Poison Switch or Confidence, Zuber, Ellerbrook, French Graveyard, Ralls, The Hump, China Store, 12-Mile, 6-Mile and, for a while, 4-Mile."

You can enjoy the detailed account and pictures of "flume life" in the "Miners, Lumberjacks and Cowboys" book that can be purchased at the Coarsegold Historic Museum and Fresno Flats Museum.

Details: Coarsegold Historic Museum, (559) 642-4448, Fresno Flats Museum, (559) 683-6570.

Details: Coarsegold Historic Museum, (559) 642-4448, Fresno Flats Museum, (559) 683-6570.

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