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Madera had the longest flume

For The Madera Tribune

This lumber flume built by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company was exactly 65.9 miles long, according to the calculations of Bill Schwartz who walked all the way from Sugar Pine to Madera to prove that Madera had a longer flume than Sanger.


Madera had the lumber industry’s first flume; no one disputes that fact. What was in dispute was whose flume was the longest?

Built in 1876, by the California Lumber Company, Madera’s V-flume followed along mountainsides, through steep canyons, and often had to utilize trestles that were more than 60 feet in height.

When the company went bankrupt two years later, the Madera Flume and Trading Company acquired its assets and used its flume to continue sending lumber to Madera.

Then, lo and behold, the MFTC went belly up in 1898, and water ceased to carry lumber down the flume.

The next year, however, along came the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, and it rebuilt the flume that had fallen into disrepair. The new structure ran from Sugar Pine, south to Fresno Flats (Oakhurst) and from there down to Madera, over a 60-mile route.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 27, 1900, the citizens of Madera celebrated the completion of the rebuilding project with a community barbecue and boasted the completion of the longest lumber flume in Central California.

Now it just so happened that this claim riled some folks in Sanger. You see, they had a flume of their own, and the Sangerites claimed their “King’s River Flume” was longer than Madera’s Sugar Pine Flume.

Built in 1890 by the Kings River Lumber Company, it spanned 62 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the lumber yard and railroad depot in Sanger. Together with a constant water supply from a nearby reservoir, the flume enabled the efficient transportation of boards of lumber over deep gorges and cliffs just like the one in Madera.

For awhile there was some good-natured ribbing, but in time the competing claims of each company began to wear on the harmonious relations between the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company and the Kings River Lumber Company. The Maderans were certain their new flume was longer than that of Sanger, and one fellow, Bill Schwartz, set out to prove it.

When they built the flume, they erected 10 flume houses along the route. They were spaced from 2 1/2 to 7 miles apart and had been erected to house the lumber herders who had to maintain a 24-hour vigil to make sure there were no lumber pileups along the way.

From Sugar Pine, the flume stations were located in such exotic places as Salt Springs, Poison Switch, Confidence, Zubra, Ellerbrock, French Graveyard, Ralls, the Hump, China Store, 12 Mile house, and Six Mile House.

Schwartz was living at Salt Springs when he decided to show the world once and for all the exact length of Madera’s flume. He walked all the way from Sugar Pine to Madera to prove it.

The flume had been built in 16 feet sections and then joined together. Schwartz started out in Salt Springs with a stick about three feet long and a knife and began to walk toward Sugar Pine. As he went, he counted the 16-foot sections, and when he got to 100, he made a notch in his stick.

When he got to Sugar Pine, he turned about and walked back down to the next flume house below Salt Springs, which was Poison Switch. Taking up another stick, Schwartz walked back up the mountain to Salt Springs, again making a mark for every 100 sections he passed.

With that, he grabbed some more sticks and turned around toward Madera. He walked back to Poison Switch and began counting again — every 100 sections.

Past Confidence, Zubra, Ellerbrock, French Graveyard, Ralls, the Hump, China Store, 12 Mile house, and Six Mile House he walked, making his notches in his sticks.

When he got to Madera, he had a huge bundle of sticks, each with a notch in it. Then he went to one of the bosses at the mill and threw them on the floor, exclaiming, “Now, there is a mark for every 100 sections on this flume.”

The two men counted up the notches on the sticks and did some calculating. Bill Schwartz’ sticks showed that the Madera Sugar Pine Flume was 65.9 miles long.

“Now,” he said, “nobody can say the flume is 70 miles long, and nobody can say it is 60 or 65 miles long. There it is — 65.9 miles long.

That also settled the question about who had the longest lumber flume, Madera or Sanger. Clearly, Madera had put the matter to rest, thanks to one very determined lumberman.

No wonder his great grandson is doing such a good job as the deputy superintendent of Madera Unified School District. Look at the gene pool from which he is drawing.


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