The history of Tuolumne County logging goes back to the gold rush. While we usually think of the Standard Mill or of West Side Lumber when we think of Tuolumne logging, those big companies came along at the end of the 19th century. Before them, before the arrival of the railroads in the foothills, small mills supplied the county’s lumber needs. Detailed records of this early era are scanty, but the following paragraphs from an 1882 county history by B.F. Alley summarize the history of the first mills —
“The earliest demands of the bustling population who early arrived within the gold region were for articles of provision, for tools, and for lumber with which to construct the flumes, rockers, and other accessories of mining life, and for the important uses of house building. During the first years the production of lumber was necessarily limited, and the article was of correspondingly high price. Men earned extravagant wages by sawing planks out by hand-pit sawing, it was called.
“The first records that we have of any important move in the direction of lumber making, are the accounts of Major Charbonell’s steam saw mill, situated in Sonora, on land bought from C. F. and T. Dodge, for $150. The existence of this pioneer mill was short, but it was succeeded by numerous others, driven by either steam or water power, and situated in various portions of the county.
“Soon after Charbonell’s experiment, Messrs. Heslep & Manning built a sawmill on Woods’ Creek, on the present site of Mr. Bell’s Flouring Mill. Subsequently a run of stones was added, and Heslep & Bell commenced the manufacture of flour, Mr. Bell succeeding to the present business.
“Somewhat later than Messrs. Heslep & Manning’s venture, Mr. Caleb Dorsey erected a mill on Mormon Creek, near Springfield, with the double object of sawing lumber and of hoisting water for the use of the miners of Shaw’s Flat. Failing in his objects, he removed his mill to Sawmill Flat, and engaged in lumber making with good success.
“At about the same time, or a little later, Messrs. Stacy, Bennett & Turner built also a sawmill on the Flat, selling out at a later period to J. W. Brazee. This gentleman failed in business, and Messrs. Whitney & Van Vechten became proprietors of the mill.
“Mills were erected in the vicinity of nearly every important mining camp, but the enormous demand for lumber was but partially met. Extravagant prices ruled at first, but the multiplicity of sawmills, by the year 1853, had brought them down to a reasonable figure. Thus, after the great fire in Sonora in October, 1853, boards were quoted at $50 to $60 per thousand. Not a very high price, considering the times and the great demand for rebuilding purposes.
“In the course of time the lower and central portions of the county were denuded of trees, and the mills were compelled to remove eastward, to keep within reach of the forests which they were so rapidly consuming.
“Somewhat later-in the year 1856-there were twenty-four sawmills in the county, running thirty-four saws. Of these mills, fourteen were driven by steam, and the remainder by water power. This is the list:
“Clapp & Brazee, 8 miles east of Sonora, 4 saws; Heslep & Trayler, 7 miles east of Sonora, 4 saws; Whitney & Van Vechten, steam, 3 miles east of Columbia, 2 saws; Smith, Morse & Co., 6 miles east of Columbia, 2 saws and a planing machine-the only one in the county; Nye, 11 miles east of Sonora, steam, 2 saws; Major Prevost, 11 miles east of Sonora, 1 saw; Davis & Co., 15 miles east of Sonora, 2 saws and a shingle machine; Severance & Co., 4 miles southeast of Sonora, 2 saws ; Latimer, steam, 1 saw; Mountain Pine Mill, steam, 10 miles east of Sonora, 1 saw; Reed & Co., near Garrote, steam, 2 saws; Smith, Hunt & Co., between Garrote and Coulterville, steam, 2 saws; Bean & Co., between Garrote and Coulterville, steam, 2 saws; Bailey & Morgan, 12 miles east of Sonora, steam, 1 saw; Sugar Pine, 18 miles east of Sonora, water, 2 saws; Enterprise, 11 miles east of Sonora, water, 2 saws; Charbonell, east of Sonora, 1 saw; Lewis & Engle, 2 miles east of Columbia, water, 1 saw; Woodham & Co., 6 miles east of Columbia, water, 1 saw; Street, Tuolumne River, above Jacksonville, 1 saw; Vine Springs, near Columbia, water, 1 saw; Mountain Brow, Mormon Creek, near Springfield, water, 1 saw; Zootman, Mormon Creek, water, 1 saw; Talbot, mouth of Woods’ Creek, water, 1 saw.
“The amount of lumber manufactured by the above mills in 1855 was about 15,000,000 feet, worth an average of $30 per M [thousand board feet]. The total cost of the mills was perhaps $375,000. In and about them 250 men found active employment, at wages ranging from $50 to $100 per month and found [food and lodging]. About two thirds of the lumber was used for mining purposes, the remainder for building and fencing. The timber cut was mainly sugar, yellow, and nut pine, and cedar, with some oak and spruce.”
By the decade of the 1880s, after the gold rush and its voracious appetite for lumber, and because inefficient transportation limited the export of lumber to other counties, lumber output dropped by almost two thirds — total mill production in 1880 was 5,400,000 board feet. Two years later the county assessor tallied just six mills operating in the county, five steam-powered and one water-powered. The county’s logging industry dozed at this low level until the end of the century when ambitious investors arrived to build the railroads and exploit the enormous, untapped stands of high-quality timber in Tuolumne County.
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