Timber and Lumber Industry

The timber and lumber industry was shaped in Tuolumne County by the early gold miners.  Wood was a basic building material for gold mining devices such as the long tom, sluice box and was required for transport of water by way of large flumes.  Flumes were basic water channels made of lumber to transport gravity fed water down sheer canyons and foothills to the mining camps during the early placer and hydraulic mining days.  When placer mining played out and as hydraulic mining was being curtailed, underground hardrock mining expanded.  The demand for timber grew rapidly.  Lumber was becoming the primary building material for homes and commercial businesses taking the place of the temporary canvas tents and shelters used in the initial settlements.  In 1848, planks of lumber were made by hand sawing timbers with whipsaws.  Many man-powered sawmills were common in mining camps.  Demand for timber to support underground work grew rapidly, and sawmills sprang up further from camps and towns higher into the mountains following the receding timber harvesting sites.

Next came water powered saw mills, where the use of rivers and channels of water were used to move saw blades up and down through a system of gears and a waterwheel.  Lumber produced was limited to a few thousand board feet cut in a day.  In 1850, steam powered saw mills greatly improved production.  By 1856, two-dozen mills were in operation in Tuolumne County of various types.  By the 1890s, hardrock quartz mining had a revival, the “second Gold Rush,” because of mining technology improvements such as steel strand cables and electricity.  Another improvement originally invented in 1861 was a system of “square sets,” which provided strength and rigidity by interlocking massive beams as large as eighteen inches by eighteen inches into large square cubic structures.  This concept allowed deeper and safer mining complexes to be constructed underground.  At the beginning of this second gold rush, smaller companies were trying to meet the demand for lumber. The major lumber operations in Tuolumne County were S. S. Bradford, George W. Hale and later his son-in-law, N. L. Knudsen, and Alfred Hiatt.

It was not until the Sierra Railway incorporated by in 1897, that large mills were conceived and built to cut lumber for local use and export out of the county.  The first major operation was the West Side Flume and Lumber Company reincorporated in 1899, by the Crocker’s, Poniatowski, and Bullock as General Manager. It was later renamed the West Side Lumber Company when ownership changed again in 1903. In 1899, West Side Flume and Lumber Company opened a large mill in the town of Carters (renamed Tuolumne in 1909) and added a drying kiln, planning mill, and box factory in 1900.

Tuolumne County’s second major lumber operation was the Standard Lumber Company, headquartered initially in Sonora and later at the company town of Standard.  It was incorporated in 1901, by D. H. Steinmetz and others acting for T. S. Bullock. In 1903, Bullock left after the West Side Flume and Lumber Company was sold to a Michigan corporation. Steinmetz, Bullock’s assistant manager at West Side Flume and Lumber Company, joined him.  The new company was formed by the acquisition of the mountain sawmills and timberlands of S. S. Bradford, Alfred Hiatt, N. L. Knudsen, and the Sonora Lumber Company. The Sonora planning mills and factories of Bradford and Knudsen were also acquired. In 1908, the company was awarded a one million dollar box contract with Fruit Grower Supply Company of Los Angeles.  They cut more than 15 million board feet of lumber, 75 per cent went to the box and door factories and the rest was shipped via railroad to other markets outside of Tuolumne County.  The Sierra Railway was providing freight and passenger service.  It brought in box cars from all over the United States bringing in grain, coal, crude oil, dynamite and lumbering machinery and exporting lumber and mining ores.  Tuolumne County was one of California’s leading mining districts with over 300 patented mines and about 1000 ore stamping facilities.

Changes began to take place in the timber and lumber business.  Pickering Lumber Company of Kansas City, Missouri acquired the Standard Lumber Company and its Sugar Pine Railway in 1919. In 1925, Pickering also acquired the West Side Lumber Company and its railroad.  However, after the depression of the 1930s, Pickering Lumber Company closed down all operations.  In 1934, West Side Lumber and its railroad were returned to its former owners.  By 1937, Pickering reopened its remaining operations after receiving a Federal economic recovery aid loan.  After improved roads were built for automobiles and the trucking industry, logging trucks were selected over railroads by West Side Lumber Company.  In 1961, the West Side Lumber Railroad was closed down and four years later Pickering Lumber Railroad (old Sugar Pine Railway) also closed.

Pickering Lumber Company (originally Standard Lumber Company) was purchased by Fiberboard Paper Products in 1964.  Following Fiberboard’s bankruptcy, it was bought by Louisiana Pacific and finally purchased in 1995, by its current owners, Sierra Pacific Industries.  Today the Sierra Railroad hauls freight and processed timber products and contracted to haul logs from out-of-state to be processed at Sierra Pacific Industries located next to the old company town of Standard.

For more information, order CHISPA, Vol. 18, No. 4, April-June, 1979, “West Side Revisited,”