Logging and lumbering in California’s Sierra Nevada began well before gold was discovered. In the early 1800’s logging was a laborious, slow and dangerous profession, with brute strength and animal power being top requirements.
The discovery of gold in 1848 brought a new demand for wood products. In January of 1848 the sawmill that James Marshall was building at Coloma was to be powered by water from the nearby American River. Although steam powered mills had been sawing lumber for many years back East, water power was as good as it got in California. In fact, out West, much of the small quantity of lumber needed was still being produced by whip-sawing. The log was rolled onto supporting beams over a pit, while the head sawyer stood on the log and handled one end of the saw. His less fortunate partner worked in the pit, eating sawdust all day.
While Marshall found gold, the resulting population explosion created a tremendous demand for timber products. They were needed for buildings, water flumes, mine timbers and more.
Many small mills in the Sierra produced lumber for nearby mining towns, but the cost of overland transportation by horse teams was prohibitive. The burgeoning towns of San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento could get timber products cheaper from California’s north coast and even from Oregon and Washington. All the major lumber producers were near rivers and oceans, the best transportation method of that era, as moving heavy logs long distances with animals was impractical. Efforts were made to float logs down Sierra Nevada rivers, but successful log drives were few, as the rivers were too wild, and the water flow either too high or too low most of the time.
By the late 1800’s dramatic changes made Sierra mills a practical proposition. Animal power had, for the most part, been replaced by steam. Steam donkeys yanked logs off the mountains, steam locomotives and traction engines hauled them to the mills where steam-powered saws cut them into lumber and steam locomotives transported the lumber to market.
The exception was in the southern Sierra. There, building railroad track to the timber was too expensive because of distances and terrain. For over half a century, water filled V-shaped wooden flumes up to 60 miles in length floated lumber from southern Sierra mills to railheads in the San Joaquin Valley. Flumes were tried in the northern and central Sierra, but never panned out. The southern flumes continued moving lumber until 1931, when the mills closed down due to a depressed lumber market.
Building and maintaining flumes was costly, as was railroad logging in the rest of the Sierra. Consequently, only lumber from the more valuable tree species could be produced at a profit. Generally, that would be Ponderosa Pine and Sugar Pine. It was not until the mid to late 1930s that more efficient equipment such as crawler tractors and trucks reduced logging costs. At that time demand for lumber increased so that Sierra timber men could earn a living on other species.
Clear-cutting was not nearly as common in the Sierra as in other areas. It may have been partly for economic reasons, as small trees make less desirable lumber. Most Sierra timber companies logged selectively, leaving the smaller trees in the forest. Today, those selectively logged areas are productive, valuable stands that are treasured by those who love the forest.
Much has been learned about forest management, and California now has the most protected forests in the world with eight million acres set aside for parks, wildlife habitat, wilderness areas and such. Professional foresters are practicing sustainable forestry to ensure a never-ending supply of trees to furnish us with the thousands of products derived from the forest.