This article is presented here courtesy of Las Calaveras, the quarterly bulletin of the Calaveras County Historical Society. Be aware that the author’s dating of some events is debatable, particularly Nathan McKay’s arrival in the county, and John Manuel’s mill purchase.
Among the primary needs of American settlers who arrived in Northern California before the discovery of gold was lumber for building and development of agricultural pursuits. At first, the early agriculturists in the Central Valley and at the edge of the foothills depended heavily on adobe and stone for building materials. The few sawed boards they used were provided through the laborious process of cutting them with hand-powered whipsaws. But their needs quickly expanded.
It was the need for lumber for the continued expansion of New Helvetia, John Sutter’s rapidly growing colony at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, that led him to construct a sawmill on the edge of the pine belt, at Coloma.
But with James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter‘s mill on Jan. 24, 1848, California’s pastoral scene vanished. As men headed for the gold fields, the demand for commodities, including lumber, increased a thousand-fold overnight and then increased again. At Rattlesnake Bar, on the American River, boards from dismantled wagons that could be used to build rockers and sluice boxes sold for several dollars a board. Prices were probably the same elsewhere, including Calaveras County, during 1848 and ‘49.
William Perkins, in the journal of his Gold Rush experiences, reported that in Sonora a large number of men were kept employed cutting lumber by hand during the winter of 1849-50, but that by April 1850, a steam-powered sawmill was producing several thousand feet of lumber per day at a price of $500 per thousand board feet.
In Calaveras County the limited amount of lumber produced in 1848 and 1849 also appears to have been hand sawed and almost every community had one or more whipsaw pits. Exactly when the first water-or steam-powered sawmill went into operation in Calaveras is not recorded, but it probably was no later than 1850. By that time, men with experience in the lumber industry had arrived, and upon observing the need for sawed lumber, launched lumber enterprises.
In addition, ditch companies were being organized to bring water to mining operations and they needed lumber for flumes. Ebbetts Pass area historian Frances Bishop points out that by 1852, the Union Water Company, from which the present Union Public Utility District draws its name, was operating a mill on Love Creek, eight miles east of Murphys. Also in that year, the Mokelumne Canal Company was producing lumber for flumes at its mill on Mosquito Gulch, near Glencoe. By the summer of 1853, the Glencoe Mill was producing 15,000 board feet of lumber per day, and both it and the Union Ditch Company were selling excess production to miners and merchants.
By the mid-1850’s, several independent lumber companies were in operation with sawmills at West Point and in what is now the Arnold-Avery area, along with Big Trees Road. One of the pioneer loggers was William H. Hanford, who in 1855 built a mill on Hunter Creek in the vicinity of the present Hunters Dam. The mill was sold to Kimball and Cutting, who in 1883 sold to John Manuel.
Manuel, born in Chasewater, England, in 1839, came to California at the close of the 1850’s and plunged into mining. He developed the famed Central Hill gold mine at Douglas Flat and later purchased the Texas Mine there. His brother, Matthew, drowned while attempting to de-water a mine shaft there. By the time he acquired the lumber mill in 1878, Manuel had broadened his financial holdings and was becoming a wealthy man.
John Manuel moved the mill to the site of what later became a Boy Scout Camp on Highway 4, between Avery and Arnold, the site of today’s Cedar Ridge housing development. The present highway is built across the mill’s sawdust pile and for several years after its surface was paved, it continued to settle and crack.
Although placer mining was in decline by the late 1850’s, lode mining was rapidly expanding, and the demand for sawed lumber and timber for the underground mining operations continued to grow. A man identified as Dr. Fisher had established a large mill near West Point and the Daily Alta California reported in 1860 that lumber production in Calaveras County had reached 9 million board feet annually. The price of lumber was quoted at $55 per thousand at Mokelumne Hill. In 1868, the State Agricultural Report listed five steam-powered and six water-powered sawmills operating in Calveras County and lumber production continued to increase.
In 1855, Nova Scotia logger Nathan McKay and his brother, John, purchased 160 acres of prime sugar pine on Love Creek, a mile south of the Calaveras Big Trees. There they built the “Clipper Mill” named in honor of Donald C. McKay, a relative and builder of the famed clipper ship “Flying Cloud” and other well known American clipper ships. The McKay mill operated more than 48 years, closing in 1904 after exhausting its timber supply.
Meanwhile, the Raggio brothers, Ernest, Joe, and John, opened a major mill on San Domingo Creek, later moving it to Cowell Creek in 1910. As the new century unfolded, with the McKays gone, the Manuel and Raggio companies were the largest lumber operators in the county.
John Manuel, who had fathered a family of 12, died at age 59, in 1898 in Stockton, after contracting pneumonia while campaigning for state senator. Following his death, Manuel’s family organized the Manuel Estate Company and under the management of his oldest son, Matt, the company continued in the lumber business until the 1930’s. (Editor: Actually the Manuel Mill continued in operation until 1953)
In addition to their mills, the Manuels and Raggios also operated lumber yards in Angels Camp. The Manuel yard was located near the Sierra Railroad Depot, on what is now called Depot Road, and the Raggio lumber yard was near the present site of the Angels Camp swimming pool.
The Raggio mill finally ceased operation when its mill was purchased in the 1930’s by the Manuel Company and moved to San Antonio Creek, about a mile upstream from San Antonio Falls where it operated during its final years.
All of Calaveras County’s early logging companies were handicapped to a great extent by lack of adequate transportation to outside markets. The rail line to the valley ended at Milton, and the Sierra Railroad, completed from Oakdale and Sonora to Angels Camp in 1902 had high freight rates that discouraged major lumber shipping.
The mines were the major consumers of lumber in Calaveras. Charles D. Lane, soon after acquiring the Utica Mine in Angels Camp in 1884, informed John Manuel the mine could use all the lumber he could deliver.
In the early years the loggers depended largely upon oxen to haul logs to the mill, and teams of up to 16 animals were not uncommon. In 1888 the McKays built a horse drawn railroad to haul logs from the woods to the mill, but by the 1890’s, horse and ox power was being replaced at least to some extent by steam-powered traction engines.
John Manuel was the first to convert to steam traction engines for long hauls, and the McKays began using the steam tractor to pull logs to the mill. Raggios quickly followed suit, for each of those huge old steam powered behemoths could pull five wagons loaded with a total of 40,000 board feet. The old iron-wheeled tractors were not popular, however, for they chewed the roads to ribbons, and their noise frightened any horse which came near them.
Following the close of Word War I, gasoline engine trucks were replacing horses and steam tractors for most long hauls. Ernest Raggio, son of the founder of the Raggio mill, recalled that gasoline powered trucks hauled the lumber and other building materials that went into the construction of the original Spicer Dam.
Today, two of the old steam-traction engines that once hauled the logs and lumber to the Manuel and Raggio mills are on display in front of the Angels Camp Museum, reminders of the days when logging was a tougher and more personal business.