Fresno Flats Free Friday, June 7 Lecture: Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Co.

A view of the flume with rough-cut lumber clamped and ready for the 50-mile-plus ride from Sugar Pine to Madera.
A view of the flume with rough-cut lumber clamped and ready for the 50-mile-plus ride from Sugar Pine to Madera. Special to the Sierra Star

The history of the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company will be shared by local railroad enthusiast and Realtor Scott McGhee for the Fresno Flats Friday night lecture series at 6:30 p.m. on June 7 at the Fresno Flats Historical Park in Oakhurst. The once-thriving Sugar Pine Lumber Company town (located between Oakhurst and Fish Camp), was inhabited by some 300 residents during the peak of its lumbering operations.

At a 4,450-foot elevation, it is now home to the 65-year-old Sugar Pine Christian Camp and a handful of year-round residents while the majority of the homes are summer retreats for families who have owned the cabins for several generations.

But back to the history of the area. Rail cars brought the cut trees from the surrounding forests to the mill built by the company at Sugar Pine. There the trees were rough milled readying the lumber for an approximately 50-mile-plus journey down a flume to Madera where the lumber was distributed worldwide.

“A gentleman by the name of William H. Thurman came up with the idea of building a V-shaped wooden flume from his mill site in Oakhurst, then known as Fresno Flats, to the railroad in Madera,” said Linda Gast in a series of articles originally published in 2013. “It was made to float the milled lumber using the water in the flume to the railroad in the Central Valley by gravity.”

Gast said that construction began in 1874. The flume was built in 16-foot sections, 5 feet across, and consumed all the lumber the Sugar Pine Company could produce in the two years it took to build it.

“The flume carried 1.5 billion board feet of lumber to Madera during the years it was in use,” Gast said.

Some 35 flume tenders or herders were hired to keep the flume in good repair and to unclog logjams, according to Stella Pizelo, whose family has owned a cabin in Sugar Pine since 1946.

A small section of the flume can still be seen along Highway 41, in front of the ECCO entrance sign north of Oakhurst.

“Our family cabin in Sugar Pine … was purchased in 1946 by my grandmother Bernice Clark, and my great-grandmother, Stella Brown,” Pizelo said in a 2017 story about the Railroad Fire that burned between the communities of Sugar Pine and Fish Camp in the Sierra National Forest. “The cabin had once been the residence of Carl P. Russell who wrote ‘One Hundred Years in Yosemite,’ and who later became the superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Early in the days of the Madera Sugar Pine logging operation, the cabin had also been a doctor’s residence. The rustic hospital had been located a few structures down the road.”

“I felt fortunate to spend all of my summer vacations and school holidays with my grandparents in beloved Sugar Pine,” Pizelo said. “It was a magical place to play with other children, many of them from Madera (Seabury, Copeland, Leason, Ransma, Pitman, Cardwell, Brammer, Emmert, Schmidt and Cook from Los Gatos) who also spent their summers at family cabins at a much cooler elevation than the San Joaquin Valley.”

“As kids we could play from 10 a.m. to dusk, hiking, climbing trees, swimming and fishing in Lewis Creek or in the old millpond,” Pizelo said. “We played board games, read books, played hide-and-seek and made up games, skits and dances. Sugar Pine was an idyllic, safe place to grow up with beautiful trees, ferns and wild azaleas. We breathed fresh pine-scented air and fell asleep listening to the sound of the creek. In the evening we sat around the outdoor firepit where we roasted marshmallows, ate s’mores and looked at the bright stars.”

The Railroad Fire was not the first wildfire to cause evacuation of the community of Sugar Pine. A fire in 1922 swept through Sugar Pine “leaving hundreds homeless and causing over $2 million damage in the forest,” Pizelo said. “Within one year after the fire, Sugar Pine had been rebuilt and started up the lumber productions again.” No lives were lost in that fire which began on a community movie night when residents packed into the few vehicles there to escape.

It is the history of this little community and the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company that McGhee will bring alive with his lecture and slideshow. “I have a deep love for railroading,” said McGhee, whose primary source of information for the lecture is Hank Johnston’s book, ‘Thunder in the Mountains: The Life and Times of Madera Sugar Pine.’ “That is a passion of mine since I can remember. The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad that operates today on the same right-of-way as the Madera Sugar Pine invoked some interest to the history of the railroad and the logging operation.”

McGhee received permission from Johnston’s publisher to include a number of photographic images from the book in his presentation. Other photographs to be shown came from the Dr. and Lillian Wells’ collection. Included are pictures of the flume and the rustic lumber town homes. “A man’s social status depended almost entirely on his position with the company,” Johnston explained in his book.

“Up the canyon is where management lived, mill men lived in the lower canyon, shop men on the side of the hill,” Pizelo explained.

The historic community that McGhee will describe had a “school, hospital, doctor, company store and, of course, the mess hall,” McGhee said. “They even had a ballpark!” A post office was opened in 1907 and closed in 1934.

This presentation is one in a series of Fresno Flats Free Friday Lectures. The events have been presented to standing-room-only crowds prompting event organizers to encourage participants to arrive early. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. The museum on the grounds will be open to the public at that time. Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park recreates 19th century life in the Sierra Nevada foothills and is home to two restored and furnished homes built in the 1870s as well as other historic buildings moved to the park.

The Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park is located at 49777 School Road in Oakhurst. The lectures are free, but donations to the nonprofit Sierra Historical Sites Association are accepted.